Math 55

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Math 55 is a two-semester freshman undergraduate mathematics course at Harvard University founded by Lynn Loomis and Shlomo Sternberg. The official titles of the course are Studies in Algebra and Group Theory (Math 55a)[1] and Studies in Real and Complex Analysis (Math 55b).[2] Previously, the official title was Honors Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra.[3]


In the past, Harvard University's Department of Mathematics had described Math 55 as "probably the most difficult undergraduate math class in the country."[4] But Math 55 lecturer for 2022 Professor Denis Auroux clarified that "if you’re reasonably good at math, you love it, and you have lots of time to devote to it, then Math 55 is completely fine for you."[5]

Formerly, students would begin the year in Math 25 (which was created in 1983 as a lower-level Math 55) and, after three weeks of point-set topology and special topics (for instance, in 1994, p-adic analysis was taught by Wilfried Schmid), students would take a quiz. As of 2012, students may choose to enroll in either Math 25 or Math 55 but are advised to "shop" both courses and have five weeks to decide on one.[6]

Depending on the professor teaching the class, the diagnostic exam may still be given after three weeks to help students with their decision. In 1994, 89 students took the diagnostic exam: students scoring more than 50% on the quiz could enroll in Schmid's Math 55 (15 students), students scoring between 10 and 50% could enroll in Benedict Gross's Math 25: Theoretical Linear Algebra and Real Analysis (55 students), and students scoring less than 10% were advised to enroll in a course such as Math 21: Multivariable Calculus (19 students).[7]

In the past, problem sets were expected to take from 24 to 60 hours per week to complete,[4] although some claim that it is closer to 20 hours.[8] In 2022, on average, students spend a total of 20 to 30 hours per week on this class, including homework. In addition to visiting their professor during office hours, students are encouraged to work together on homework assignments.[5] Many have spent much time together working in the "war room" (a place in the Grays Basement) and have developed long-lasting friendships.[5][9] Taking many other challenging courses and extracurricular activities in the same semester is ill-advised.[5]

Students typically typeset their homework in LaTeX and essentially write their own textbook for this class,[3] which ends with a take-home final exam.[10]

Historical retention rate[edit]

In 1970, Math 55 covered almost four years worth of department coursework in two semesters, and subsequently, it drew only the most diligent of undergraduates. Of the 75 students who enrolled in the 1970 offering, by course end, only 20 remained due to the advanced nature of the material and time-constraints under which students were given to work.[11] David Harbater, a mathematics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and student of the 1974 Math 55 section at Harvard, recalled of his experience, "Seventy [students] started it, 20 finished it, and only 10 understood it." Scott D. Kominers, familiar with the stated attrition rates for the course, decided to keep an informal log of his journey through the 2009 section: "...we had 51 students the first day, 31 students the second day, 24 for the next four days, 23 for two more weeks, and then 21 for the rest of the first semester after the fifth Monday" (the beginning of the fifth week being the drop deadline for students to decide whether to remain in Math 55 or transfer to Math 25).[3]

Numbers of students dropping are due in part to the tendency of undergraduates to "shop around" for appropriate courses at the start of each semester.[5] Even those who passed Advanced Placement Calculus and were veterans of the USA Mathematical Olympiad might feel that Math 55 was too much to handle.[3]

Course content[edit]

Through 2006, the instructor had broad latitude in choosing the content of the course.[12] Though Math 55 bore the official title "Honors Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra," advanced topics in complex analysis, point-set topology, group theory, and differential geometry could be covered in depth at the discretion of the instructor, in addition to single and multivariable real analysis as well as abstract linear algebra. In 1970, for example, students studied the differential geometry of Banach manifolds in the second semester of Math 55.[11] In contrast, Math 25 was more narrowly focused, usually covering real analysis, together with the relevant theory of metric spaces and (multi)linear maps. These topics typically culminated in the proof of the generalized Stokes theorem, though, time permitting, other relevant topics (e.g. category theory, de Rham cohomology) might also be covered.[13] Although both courses presented calculus from a rigorous point of view and emphasized theory and proof writing, Math 55 was generally faster paced, more abstract, and demanded a higher level of mathematical sophistication. In short, the course gave a survey of the entire undergraduate curriculum of mathematics in just two semesters and might even include graduate-level topics.[3]

Loomis and Sternberg's textbook Advanced Calculus,[14] an abstract treatment of calculus in the setting of normed vector spaces and on differentiable manifolds, was tailored to the authors' Math 55 syllabus and served for many years as an assigned text. Instructors for Math 55[15][16][17] and Math 25[13] have also selected Rudin's Principles of Mathematical Analysis,[18] Ahlfors' Complex Analysis,[19] Spivak's Calculus on Manifolds,[20] Axler's Linear Algebra Done Right,[21] Halmos's Finite-Dimensional Vector Spaces,[22] Munkres' Topology,[23] and Artin's Algebra[24] as textbooks or references.

From 2007 onwards, the scope of the course (along with that of Math 25) was changed to more strictly cover the contents of four semester-long courses in two semesters: Math 25a (linear algebra and real analysis) and Math 122 (group theory and vector spaces) in Math 55a; and Math 25b (real analysis) and Math 113 (complex analysis) in Math 55b. The name was also changed to "Honors Abstract Algebra" (Math 55a) and "Honors Real and Complex Analysis" (Math 55b). Fluency in formulating and writing mathematical proofs is listed as a course prerequisite for Math 55, while such experience is considered "helpful" but not required for Math 25.[4] In practice, students of Math 55 have usually had extensive experience in proof writing and abstract mathematics, with many being the past winners of prestigious national or international mathematical Olympiads (such as USAMO or IMO). Typical students of Math 25 have also had previous exposure to proof writing through mathematical contests or university-level mathematics courses.

Notable alumni[edit]

Many students who complete the course become professors in quantitative fields.[11] Among those who took Math 55 were UC San Diego mathematician and former Harvard Dean Benedict Gross,[5] Harvard mathematician Joe Harris,[5] Columbia mathematical physicist Peter Woit,[25] Harvard physicist Lisa Randall,[26] Oxford geophysicist Raymond Pierrehumbert,[3] Harvard economists Andrei Shleifer and Eric Maskin, and UC Berkeley economist Brad DeLong.[27] Other alumni of Math 55 include business magnate and computer programmer Bill Gates,[28][29] computer programmer and free-software promoter Richard Stallman,[11] and television writer and executive producer Al Jean.[30]


A 2006 article in The Harvard Crimson reported that only 17 women completed the class between 1990 and 2006.[3] Math 25 has more women: in 1994–95, Math 55 had no women, while Math 25 had about 10 women in the 55-person course.[7] In 2006, the class was 45 percent Jewish (5 students), 18 percent Asian (2 students), 100 percent male (11 students).[3]

Demographics of students taking this course over the years have been used to study the causes of gender and race differences in STEM.[31][32][33] (Also see the greater male variability hypothesis.)


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Mathematics 55a". Courses. Department of Mathematics, Harvard University. 2023. Retrieved February 9, 2023.
  2. ^ "Mathematics 55b". Courses. Department of Mathematics, Harvard University. 2023. Retrieved February 9, 2023.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Ury, Logan R. (December 6, 2006). "Burden of Proof". Harvard Crimson. Archived from the original on December 7, 2007. Retrieved January 17, 2023.
  4. ^ a b c "Harvard Mathematics Department 21, 23, 25, or 55?". Archived from the original on October 19, 2017. Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Yefremova, Anastasia (May 5, 2022). "Demystifying Math 55". Department of Mathematics, Harvard University. Archived from the original on August 8, 2022. Retrieved August 25, 2022.
  6. ^ Lee, Steve (October 16, 2003). "Math + 55 = Don't Try This at Home". Harvard Independent. Archived from the original on January 21, 2014. Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  7. ^ a b Chen, Susan A. (October 20, 1994). "In Math Department, It's Mostly Male". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  8. ^ Huang, Susie Y. (January 6, 1999). "Math 55: Rite of Passage for Dept.'s Elite Intimidates Many". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  9. ^ Arffa, Leslie B.; Pincus, Liza E. (March 3, 2011). "Blocking at Harvard". Harvard Crimson. Archived from the original on May 16, 2021. Retrieved August 25, 2022.
  10. ^ "Math 55a Syllabus". Math 55a: Honors Abstract Algebra. Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  11. ^ a b c d Williams, Sam (2002). Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software. O'Reilly. p. 41. ISBN 0-596-00287-4.
  12. ^ Compare Elkies course page (2005) and McMullen course page (2008).
  13. ^ a b Rudin, Walter; Halmos, Paul R.; Spivak, Michael; Coates, Tom (eds.). "Honors Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra, Spring 2005, texts, homework, course outline". Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  14. ^ Loomis, Lynn Harold; Sternberg, Shlomo Zvi (2014). Advanced Calculus (revised ed.). World Scientific. ISBN 978-9-814-58393-0.
  15. ^ "Math 55 Course Description, 2006-2007" (PDF). Retrieved July 9, 2017.[dead link]
  16. ^ a b Auroux, Denis. "Math 55A Course Syllabus (Fall 2020)". Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  17. ^ a b Auroux, Denis. "Math 55B Course Syllabus (Spring 2021)". Retrieved March 2, 2020.
  18. ^ Rudin, Walter (1976). Principles of Mathematical Analysis (3rd ed.). McGraw Hill. ISBN 978-0-070-54235-8.
  19. ^ Ahlfors, Lars Valerian (1978). Complex Analysis: An Introduction to the Theory of Analytic Functions of One Complex Variable. McGraw-Hill Higher Education. ISBN 978-0-070-00657-7.
  20. ^ Spivak, Michael (1965). Calculus on Manifolds: A Modern Approach to Classical Theorems of Advanced Calculus. CRC Press. ISBN 978-0-367-09190-3.
  21. ^ Axler, Sheldon (2014). Linear Algebra Done Right (3rd ed.). Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-11079-0.
  22. ^ Halmos, Paul (2017). Finite-Dimensional Vector Spaces (2nd ed.). Dover Publications. ISBN 978-0-486-81486-5.
  23. ^ Munkres, James R. (2000). Topology (2nd ed.). Pearson. ISBN 978-0-131-81629-9.
  24. ^ Artin, Michael (2017). Algebra (2nd ed.). Pearson. ISBN 978-0-134-68960-9.
  25. ^ Woit, Peter (May 25, 2022). "This and That". Not Even Wrong. Retrieved December 27, 2022.
  26. ^ Robinson, Evan T.R. (June 2, 2009). "Class of 1984: Lisa Randall". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved December 9, 2018. As a college freshman, Lisa J. Randall '84 stood out for many reasons. In her first semester, she enrolled in Math 55 and Physics 55, the most difficult freshman math and physics classes offered.
  27. ^ Bhayani, Paras D. (June 4, 2007). "Andrei Shleifer and J. Bradford DeLong". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved December 9, 2018. "Math 55 permanently disabused me of the idea of becoming a mathematician," Shleifer says. Though he would tough the class out and remain a math major, he says he became drawn to economics—a subject he knew nothing of in high school—after taking some introductory courses in the field..
  28. ^ Manes, Stephen; Andrews, Paul Andrews (1993). Gates: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry -- and Made Himself the Richest Man in America. Doubleday. p. 58. ISBN 0-385-42075-7.
  29. ^ Grossman, Lev (February 29, 2004). "10 Questions For Bill Gates". Time. Archived from the original on September 12, 2012. Retrieved August 25, 2022.
  30. ^ @AlJean (January 28, 2019). ".@TheSimpsons I actually took this class" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  31. ^ Sommers, Christina Hoff (March 2, 2008). "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?". The American. Retrieved December 9, 2018. Math 55 does not look like America... Why do women avoid classes like Math 55? Why, in fact, are there so few women in the high echelons of academic math and in the physical sciences?
  32. ^ Dillon, Sam (January 19, 2005). "No Break in the Storm Over Harvard President's Words". The New York Times. Archived from the original on February 19, 2022. Retrieved August 25, 2022. ... remarks Mr. Summers made Friday suggesting that biological differences between the sexes may be one explanation for why fewer women succeed in mathematic[s] and science careers.
  33. ^ Natanson, Hannah (October 20, 2017). "'A Sort of Everyday Struggle'". Harvard Crimson. Retrieved April 17, 2023. In five out of the last ten semesters, no women chose to take Math 55. And over the past five years, less than seven percent of students enrolled in Math 55 were female, according to official course enrollment data.
  34. ^ Elkies, Noam D. "Lecture notes for Math 55a: Honors Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra (Fall 2002)". Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  35. ^ Elkies, Noam D. "Lecture notes, etc., for Math 55b: Honors Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra (Spring 200[2-]3)". Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  36. ^ Elkies, Noam D. "Lecture notes for Math 55a: Honors Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra (Fall 2005)". Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  37. ^ McMullen, Curtis T. "Math 55a: Honors Abstract Algebra". Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  38. ^ McMullen, Curtis T. "Math 55b: Honors Real and Complex Analysis". Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  39. ^ Elkies, Noam D. "Lecture notes for Math 55a: Honors Abstract Algebra (Fall 2010)". Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  40. ^ Elkies, Noam D. "Lecture notes, etc., for Math 55b: Honors Real and Complex Analysis (Spring [2010-]2011)". Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  41. ^ Elkies, Noam D. "Lecture notes for Math 55a: Honors Abstract Algebra (Fall 2016)". Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  42. ^ Elkies, Noam D. "Lecture notes, etc., for Math 55b: Honors Real and Complex Analysis (Spring [2016-]2017)". Retrieved 2022-02-21.

Further reading[edit]