Experimental mathematics

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For the mathematical journal of the same name, see Experimental Mathematics (journal).

Experimental mathematics is an approach to mathematics in which numerical computation is used to investigate mathematical objects and identify properties and patterns.[1] It has been defined as "that branch of mathematics that concerns itself ultimately with the codification and transmission of insights within the mathematical community through the use of experimental (in either the Galilean, Baconian, Aristotelian or Kantian sense) exploration of conjectures and more informal beliefs and a careful analysis of the data acquired in this pursuit."[2]

As expressed by Paul Halmos: "Mathematics is not a deductive science—that's a cliché. When you try to prove a theorem, you don't just list the hypotheses, and then start to reason. What you do is trial and error, experimentation, guesswork. You want to find out what the facts are, and what you do is in that respect similar to what a laboratory technician does."[3]


Mathematicians have always practised experimental mathematics. Existing records of early mathematics, such as Babylonian mathematics, typically consist of lists of numerical examples illustrating algebraic identities. However, modern mathematics, beginning in the 17th century, developed a tradition of publishing results in a final, formal and abstract presentation. The numerical examples that may have led a mathematician to originally formulate a general theorem were not published, and were generally forgotten.

Experimental mathematics as a separate area of study re-emerged in the twentieth century, when the invention of the electronic computer vastly increased the range of feasible calculations, with a speed and precision far greater than anything available to previous generations of mathematicians. A significant milestone and achievement of experimental mathematics was the discovery in 1995 of the Bailey–Borwein–Plouffe formula for the binary digits of π. This formula was discovered not by formal reasoning, but instead by numerical searches on a computer; only afterwards was a rigorous proof found.[4]

Objectives and uses[edit]

The objectives of experimental mathematics are "to generate understanding and insight; to generate and confirm or confront conjectures; and generally to make mathematics more tangible, lively and fun for both the professional researcher and the novice".[5]

The uses of experimental mathematics have been defined as follows:[6]

  1. Gaining insight and intuition.
  2. Discovering new patterns and relationships.
  3. Using graphical displays to suggest underlying mathematical principles.
  4. Testing and especially falsifying conjectures.
  5. Exploring a possible result to see if it is worth formal proof.
  6. Suggesting approaches for formal proof.
  7. Replacing lengthy hand derivations with computer-based derivations.
  8. Confirming analytically derived results.

Tools and techniques[edit]

Experimental mathematics makes use of numerical methods to calculate approximate values for integrals and infinite series. Arbitrary precision arithmetic is often used to establish these values to a high degree of precision – typically 100 significant figures or more. Integer relation algorithms are then used to search for relations between these values and mathematical constants. Working with high precision values reduces the possibility of mistaking a mathematical coincidence for a true relation. A formal proof of a conjectured relation will then be sought – it is often easier to find a formal proof once the form of a conjectured relation is known.

If a counterexample is being sought or a large-scale proof by exhaustion is being attempted, distributed computing techniques may be used to divide the calculations between multiple computers.

Frequent use is made of general computer algebra systems such as Mathematica, although domain-specific software is also written for attacks on problems that require high efficiency. Experimental mathematics software usually includes error detection and correction mechanisms, integrity checks and redundant calculations designed to minimise the possibility of results being invalidated by a hardware or software error.

Applications and examples[edit]

Applications and examples of experimental mathematics include:

\sum_{k=1}^\infty \frac{1}{k^2}\left(1+\frac{1}{2}+\frac{1}{3}+\cdots+\frac{1}{k}\right)^2 = \frac{17\pi^4}{360}.

Plausible but false examples[edit]

Some plausible relations hold to a high degree of accuracy, but are still not true. One example is:

\int_{0}^{\infty}\cos(2x)\prod_{n=1}^{\infty}\cos\left(\frac{x}{n}\right)\mathrm{d}x \approx \frac{\pi}{8}.

The two sides of this expression only differ after the 42nd decimal place.[10]

Another example is that the maximum height (maximum absolute value of coefficients) of all the factors of xn − 1 appears to be the same as the height of the nth cyclotomic polynomial. This was shown by computer to be true for n < 10000 and was expected to be true for all n. However, a larger computer search showed that this equality fails to hold for n = 14235, when the height of the nth cyclotomic polynomial is 2, but maximum height of the factors is 3.[11]


The following mathematicians and computer scientists have made significant contributions to the field of experimental mathematics:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Weisstein, Eric W., "Experimental Mathematics", MathWorld.
  2. ^ Experimental Mathematics: A Discussion by J. Borwein, P. Borwein, R. Girgensohn and S. Parnes
  3. ^ I Want to be a Mathematician: An Automathography (1985), p. 321 (in 2013 reprint)
  4. ^ The Quest for Pi by David H. Bailey, Jonathan M. Borwein, Peter B. Borwein and Simon Plouffe.
  5. ^ Borwein, Jonathan; Bailey, David (2004). Mathematics by Experiment: Plausible Reasoning in the 21st Century. A.K. Peters. pp. vii. ISBN 1-56881-211-6. 
  6. ^ Borwein, Jonathan; Bailey, David (2004). Mathematics by Experiment: Plausible Reasoning in the 21st Century. A.K. Peters. p. 2. ISBN 1-56881-211-6. 
  7. ^ Clement W. H. Lam (1991). "The Search for a Finite Projective Plane of Order 10". American Mathematical Monthly 98 (4): 305–318. doi:10.2307/2323798. 
  8. ^ Bailey, David (1997). "New Math Formulas Discovered With Supercomputers" (PDF). NAS News 2 (24). 
  9. ^ Mumford, David; Series, Caroline; Wright, David (2002). Indra's Pearls: The Vision of Felix Klein. Cambridge. pp. viii. ISBN 0-521-35253-3. 
  10. ^ David H. Bailey and Jonathan M. Borwein, Future Prospects for Computer-Assisted Mathematics, December 2005
  11. ^ The height of Φ4745 is 3 and 14235 = 3 x 4745. See Sloane sequences OEISA137979 and OEISA160338.

External links[edit]