As the term is understood by mathematicians, folk mathematics or mathematical folklore is the body of theorems, definitions, proofs, or mathematical facts or techniques that circulate among mathematicians by word of mouth but have not appeared in print, either in books or in scholarly journals. Knowledge of folklore is the coin of the realm of academic mathematics.[original research?]
Quite important at times for researchers are folk theorems, which are results known, at least to experts in a field, and considered to have established status, but not published in complete form. Sometimes these are only alluded to in the public literature. An example is a book of exercises, described on the back cover:
Another distinct category is well-knowable mathematics, a term introduced by John Conway. These mathematical matters are known and factual, but not in active circulation in relation with current research. Both of these concepts are attempts to describe the actual context in which research work is done.
Stories, sayings and jokes
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Mathematical folklore may also refer to unusual (and possibly apocryphal) stories or jokes involving mathematicians or mathematics that are told verbally in mathematics departments. Compilations include tales collected in G. H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology and (Krantz 2002); examples include:
- Galileo dropping weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
- An apple falling on Isaac Newton's head to inspire his theory of gravitation.
- The drinking, duel and early death of Galois.
- Richard Feynman cracking safes in the Manhattan Project.
- Alfréd Rényi's definition of a mathematician: "a device for turning coffee into theorems".
- The "turtles all the way down" story told by Stephen Hawking.
- Fermat's lost simple proof.
- The unwieldy proof and associated controversies of the Four Color Theorem.