Pathological (mathematics)

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The Weierstrass function is continuous everywhere but differentiable nowhere.

In mathematics, a pathological object is one which possesses deviant, irregular, or counterintuitive property, in such a way that distinguishes it from what is conceived as a typical object in the same category. The opposite of pathological is well-behaved.[1][2][3]

In analysis[edit]

A classic example of a pathological structure is the Weierstrass function, which is continuous everywhere but differentiable nowhere.[2] The sum of a differentiable function and the Weierstrass function is again continuous but nowhere differentiable; so there are at least as many such functions as differentiable functions. In fact, by the Baire category theorem, one can show that continuous functions are generically nowhere differentiable.[4]

In layman's terms, the majority of functions are nowhere differentiable, and relatively few can ever be described or studied. In general, most useful functions also have some sort of physical basis or practical application, which means that they cannot be pathological at the level of hard mathematics or logic; aside from certain limiting cases like the delta distribution, they tend to be quite well-behaved and intuitive. To quote Henri Poincaré:

Logic sometimes makes monsters. For half a century we have seen a mass of bizarre functions which appear to be forced to resemble as little as possible honest functions which serve some purpose. More of continuity, or less of continuity, more derivatives, and so forth. Indeed, from the point of view of logic, these strange functions are the most general; on the other hand those which one meets without searching for them, and which follow simple laws appear as a particular case which does not amount to more than a small corner.

In former times when one invented a new function it was for a practical purpose; today one invents them purposely to show up defects in the reasoning of our fathers and one will deduce from them only that.

If logic were the sole guide of the teacher, it would be necessary to begin with the most general functions, that is to say with the most bizarre. It is the beginner that would have to be set grappling with this teratologic museum.

— Henri Poincaré, 1899[vague]

This highlights the fact that the term pathological (and correspondingly, the word well-behaved) is subjective, context-dependent, and subject to wearing off.[1] Its meaning in any particular case resides in the community of mathematicians, and not necessarily within mathematics itself. Also, the quotation shows how mathematics often progresses via counter-examples to what is thought intuitive or expected. For instance, the "lack of derivatives" mentioned is intimately connected with current study of magnetic reconnection events in solar plasma.[citation needed]

In topology[edit]

One of the most notorious pathologies in topology is the Alexander horned sphere, a counterexample showing that topologically embedding the sphere S2 in R3 may fail to separate the space cleanly. As a counter-example, it motivated the extra condition of tameness, which suppresses the kind of wild behavior the horned sphere exhibits.[5]

Like many other pathologies, the horned sphere in a sense plays on infinitely fine, recursively generated structure, which in the limit violates ordinary intuition. In this case, the topology of an ever-descending chain of interlocking loops of continuous pieces of the sphere in the limit fully reflects that of the common sphere, and one would expect the outside of it, after an embedding, to work the same. Yet it does not: it fails to be simply connected.

For the underlying theory, see Jordan–Schönflies theorem.


Mathematicians (and those in related sciences) very frequently speak of whether a mathematical object—a function, a set, a space of one sort or another—is "well-behaved". While the term has no fixed formal definition, it generally refers to the quality of satisfying a list of prevailing conditions,[6] which might be dependent on context, mathematical interests, fashion, and taste. To ensure that an object is "well-behaved", mathematicians introduce further axioms to narrow down the domain of study. This has the benefit of making analysis easier, but produces a loss of generality of any conclusions reached. For example, non-Euclidean geometries were once considered to be ill-behaved, but have since become common objects of study from 19th century and onwards.[7]

In both pure and applied mathematics (e.g., optimization, numerical integration, mathematical physics), well-behaved also means not violating any assumptions needed to successfully apply whatever analysis is being discussed.[6]

The opposite case is usually labeled "pathological". It is not unusual to have situations in which most cases (in terms of cardinality or measure) are pathological, but the pathological cases will not arise in practice—unless constructed deliberately.

The term "well-behaved" is generally applied in an absolute sense—either something is well-behaved or it is not. For example:

Unusually, the term could also be applied in a comparative sense:

Pathological examples[edit]

Pathological examples often have some undesirable or unusual properties that make it difficult to contain or explain within a theory. Such pathological behaviors often prompt new investigation and research, which leads to new theory and more general results. Some important historical examples of this are:

At the time of their discovery, each of these was considered highly pathological; today, each has been assimilated into modern mathematical theory. These examples prompt their observers to correct their beliefs or intuitions, and in some cases necessitate a reassessment of foundational definitions and concepts. Over the course of history, they have led to more correct, more precise, and more powerful mathematics. For example, the Dirichlet function is Lebesgue integrable, and convolution with test functions is used to approximate any locally integrable function by smooth functions.[Note 1]

Whether a behavior is pathological is by definition subject to personal intuition. Pathologies depend on context, training, and experience, and what is pathological to one researcher may very well be standard behavior to another.

Pathological examples can show the importance of the assumptions in a theorem. For example, in statistics, the Cauchy distribution does not satisfy the central limit theorem, even though its symmetric bell-shape appears similar to many distributions which do; it fails the requirement to have a mean and standard deviation which exist and that are finite.

Some of the best-known paradoxes, such as Banach–Tarski paradox and Hausdorff paradox, are based on the existence of non-measurable sets. Mathematicians, unless they take the minority position of denying the axiom of choice, are in general resigned to living with such sets.[citation needed]

Computer science[edit]

In computer science, pathological has a slightly different sense with regard to the study of algorithms. Here, an input (or set of inputs) is said to be pathological if it causes atypical behavior from the algorithm, such as a violation of its average case complexity, or even its correctness. For example, hash tables generally have pathological inputs: sets of keys that collide on hash values. Quicksort normally has O(n log n) time complexity, but deteriorates to when it is given input that triggers suboptimal behavior.

The term is often used pejoratively, as a way of dismissing such inputs as being specially designed to break a routine that is otherwise sound in practice (compare with Byzantine). On the other hand, awareness of pathological inputs is important, as they can be exploited to mount a denial-of-service attack on a computer system. Also, the term in this sense is a matter of subjective judgment as with its other senses. Given enough run time, a sufficiently large and diverse user community (or other factors), an input which may be dismissed as pathological could in fact occur (as seen in the first test flight of the Ariane 5).


A similar but distinct phenomenon is that of exceptional objects (and exceptional isomorphisms), which occurs when there are a "small" number of exceptions to a general pattern (such as a finite set of exceptions to an otherwise infinite rule). By contrast, in cases of pathology, often most or almost all instances of a phenomenon are pathological (e.g., almost all real numbers are irrational).

Subjectively, exceptional objects (such as the icosahedron or sporadic simple groups) are generally considered "beautiful", unexpected examples of a theory, while pathological phenomena are often considered "ugly", as the name implies. Accordingly, theories are usually expanded to include exceptional objects. For example, the exceptional Lie algebras are included in the theory of semisimple Lie algebras: the axioms are seen as good, the exceptional objects as unexpected but valid.

By contrast, pathological examples are instead taken to point out a shortcoming in the axioms, requiring stronger axioms to rule them out. For example, requiring tameness of an embedding of a sphere in the Schönflies problem. In general, one may study the more general theory, including the pathologies, which may provide its own simplifications (the real numbers have properties very different from the rationals, and likewise continuous maps have very different properties from smooth ones), but also the narrower theory, from which the original examples were drawn.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The Definitive Glossary of Higher Mathematical Jargon — Pathological". Math Vault. 2019-08-01. Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  2. ^ a b c Weisstein, Eric W. "Pathological". Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  3. ^ "pathological". Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  4. ^ "Baire Category & Nowhere Differentiable Functions (Part One)". Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  5. ^ Weisstein, Eric W. "Alexander's Horned Sphere". Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  6. ^ a b "The Definitive Glossary of Higher Mathematical Jargon — Well-Behaved". Math Vault. 2019-08-01. Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  7. ^ "Non-Euclidean geometry | mathematics". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-11-29.


  1. ^ The approximations converge almost everywhere and in the space of locally integrable functions.

External links[edit]

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