*Don’t just read it; fight it! Ask your own questions, look for your own examples, discover your own proofs. Is the hypothesis necessary? Is the converse true? What happens in the classical special case? What about the degenerate cases? Where does the proof use the hypothesis?* (Paul Halmos, “I want to be a mathematician”)* *

When you learn mathematics, whether in books or in lectures, you generally only see the end product – very polished, clever and elegant presentations of a mathematical topic.

However, the process of discovering *new* mathematics is much messier, full of the pursuit of directions which were naïve, fruitless or uninteresting.

While it is tempting to just ignore all these “failed” lines of inquiry, actually they turn out to be essential to one’s deeper understanding of a topic, and (via the process of elimination) finally zeroing in on the correct way to proceed.

So one should be unafraid to ask “stupid” questions, challenging conventional wisdom on a subject; the answers to these questions will occasionally lead to a surprising conclusion, but more often will simply tell you why the conventional wisdom is there in the first place, which is well worth knowing.

For instance, given a standard lemma in a subject, you can ask what happens if you delete a hypothesis, or attempt to strengthen the conclusion; if a simple result is usually proven by method X, you can ask whether it can be proven by method Y instead; the new proof may be less elegant than the original, or may not work at all, but in either case it tends to illuminate the relative power of methods X and Y, which can be useful when the time comes to prove less standard lemmas.

It’s also acceptable, when listening to a seminar, to ask “dumb” but constructive questions to help clarify some basic issue in the talk (e.g. whether statement X implied statement Y in the argument, or vice versa; whether a terminology introduced by the speaker is related to a very similar sounding terminology that you already knew about; and so forth). If you don’t ask, you might be lost for the remainder of the talk; and usually speakers appreciate the feedback (it shows that at least one audience member is paying attention!) and the opportunity to explain things better, both to you and to the rest of the audience. However, questions which do not immediately enhance the flow of the talk are probably best left to after the end of the talk.

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20 October, 2007 at 7:00 pm

AnonymousHello Terry Tao,

When I study something myself (either on my own or taking a reading course) instead of learning it from a lecture course, I found I learn them a lot worse than I think I could have if I take a formal class. But I spend probably just the same amount of time. Do you have any advice on something that I should particularly pay attention to when I learn things myself? Thanks.

21 October, 2007 at 5:55 pm

Terence TaoDear Anonymous,

Besides the advice already on these web pages, the one thing I can offer you is that when you are learning by yourself, it becomes very important to find ways to really test your knowledge of the subject, since you do not have homework, exams, or other feedback available. Doing exercises from the textbook is of course one way to test yourself, though you should resist the temptation to “cheat”, for instance by persuading yourself that you can do a problem without actually writing down all the details. But, as I already discuss in the above post, there are plenty of other usefully instructive tests you can make for yourself, for instance seeing whether you can somehow improve one of the lemmas in a text, or working through a special case of a theorem, etc.

16 February, 2011 at 10:44 am

AnonymousThis can be put into a post in the “career advise”, I think:-) Especially for those who has to learn mathematics himself/herself due to some reasons.

22 October, 2007 at 12:04 pm

AnonymousDear Professor ,

I am a doctoral student in the fourth year’s thesis; I have worked for three years on an difficult question in Penalization theory created by the authors “Roynette + Yor + Valois” :(http://arxiv.org/find/math/1/au:+Vallois_P/0/1/0/all/0/1), it involves several domains of mathematics that I maitraise shortly. Unfortunately, I dont get at any result! .

I do not know what I will do and I do not have any precise brojet for my thesis.

so i’m loking for advice for that.

Thanks in advance Professor

15 June, 2008 at 3:01 pm

这等牛人也在wordpress上写blog！ « Just For Fun[…] to mathematics, one does need to work hard, learn one’s field well, learn other fields and tools, ask questions, talk to other mathematicians, and think about the “big picture”. And yes, a reasonable amount […]

26 February, 2009 at 9:52 pm

RavishankarHello Terry Tao,

I have recently become obsessed with mathematics and proofs. I am already 24 years of age. Also whenever i see a problem, even the first example of a particular topic, i try to solve it on my own and when i am not able to solve it for some time and i look at the solution, i think why didn’t i think of this and wonder if i am not good enough. Also this seems to terrible slow down the speed at which i can study. I come from an engineering background but would like to do my graduate studies in maths. Would you still advice me to keep the same process going?(I must say that my problem solving ability has improved a lot courtesy this process). Thanks a lot.

2 March, 2009 at 11:54 am

Pacha NambiWhen I teach my classes I always tell my students that there are no such things as “dumb questions”. I emphasize to them they are in my class to learn and not sit passively but participate actively. I think this is very important, especially at the undergraduate level. I invite my students to discuss topics we cover in the class, always critically questioning what we read in textbooks. I think it is very important to not just “follow” what is in the textbook but find new ways to learn. I also learn from my students (especially from their probing questions) as much as they learn from me. I especially like students who ask the toughest questions!. I have enjoyed being a college teacher for the past 20 years – even though the pay is poor. I have also learned a lot from my students.

5 June, 2009 at 4:54 am

Essential Career Lessons[…] 8. Ask “stupid” questions So one should be unafraid to ask “stupid” questions, challenging conventional wisdom on a subject; the answers to these questions will occasionally lead to a surprising conclusion, but more often will simply tell you why the conventional wisdom is there in the first place, which is well worth knowing. (source) […]

10 January, 2010 at 10:22 pm

joe the ratThis is a really good post, thx. Sometimes I wish math books were made in such a way you can see these messy/failed lines of inquiries etc… and not only the way where you can see only the finished product. Sometimes I try to fill in these “failed lines of inquiry” but it is easy to get lost…

Are there any books where one can see the “failed lines of inquiry”? That would be great. Thx.

23 March, 2010 at 9:07 am

Solving mathematical problems – by Terrance Tao « Press4ward: faith, hope and love[…] I find that “playing” with a problem, even after you have solved it, is very helpful for understanding the underlying mechanism of the solution better. For instance, one can try removing some hypotheses, or trying to prove a stronger conclusion. See “ask yourself dumb questions“. […]

12 October, 2010 at 8:09 am

Depression and problem solving in mathematics: the art of staying upbeat « Republic of Mathematics[…] He also strongly advises that you ask yourself dumb questions – and answer them! […]

16 February, 2011 at 12:47 pm

petequinnIn a similar vein, Thomas Edison famously said: “We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb,” and “I never failed once. It just happened to be a 2000-step process.”

If you never try because you are afraid of failure, you will never succeed. Embrace your mistakes – that’s how you learn some things most effectively, by first discovering first hand the wrong way to do things. This can really help solidify the right way for you.

12 March, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Depression and problem solving in mathematics: the art of staying upbeat — Republic of Mathematics blog[…] He also strongly advises that you ask yourself dumb questions – and answer them! […]

16 March, 2011 at 5:09 am

Trivial reduction question is deep | Nanoexplanations[…] I learned a lot from that answer, and I bet others did too, given how dismissive we were of the question. This reminded me of perhaps my favorite research advice: don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions (and answer them). […]

17 July, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Career Advice From a Mathematician « I, Geek[…] Ask questions and connect with other people […]

28 July, 2011 at 3:54 am

raminhi professor

can you give some detailed examples of dump questions about an easy problem and then answer them? for example consider the series 1+2+3+…+n. or any other easy problem you wish.

many hard textbook problems get solved after a week of concentration and hard work but at the end i feel like there is more to learn. polya mentions asking dump questions too. but i have seen no real examples in his book “how to solve it”.

28 July, 2011 at 7:19 am

Terence TaoWell, the key point is that

youhave to come up with the questions; it doesn’t work nearly as well if someone else provides the questions for you.That said, there are plenty of questions around the standard exercise of evaluating that are worthwhile. Some examples: can the formula and its derivation be extended to the case where n is zero? negative? real? complex? What is the relationship between the sum and the integral ? What can one say more generally about (for k a natural number, integer, real, complex, etc.)? For instance, is it always a polynomial in n? Is there a way to assign a useful meaning to the infinite series , and how does this connect to the Riemann zeta function? (I discuss this latter point in this post.) The quantity resembles a binomial coefficient – can one find a generalisation of the identity that emphasises this viewpoint? Related to this, is there a combinatorial proof of the identity? Can it be categorified? Is there a geometric proof? Does it extend to higher dimensions? What if one replaces by another arithmetic progression? What happens to all of the above questions if one replaces addition with multiplication? Or works in another group or ring? The standard proof of the identity uses induction; what happens if one somehow deletes the axiom of induction from the number system? etc., etc.

Note that many of these questions are vague and open-ended, and thus quite distinct from the typical exercise one may find in textbooks. Unlike such exercises, the point is not actually to find definitive answers to these questions, but rather to get your brain to start following original lines of inquiry, and to develop the type of mindset that is needed for genuine mathematical research. (In many cases, the answers turn out to be degenerate or otherwise uninteresting, but the

processof arriving at such an answer is often quite instructive.)7 September, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Vinícius Machado VogtI’m writing just to say I really enjoyed this answer!

25 December, 2011 at 8:41 am

HupaledI love this answer. Many students actually ask a kind of questions that Pro.Tao mentions in the begining, but soon lost their interest in doing so because of formal education forcing them to find just the right answers.

This answer should be written in every math textbooks.

31 July, 2011 at 10:50 am

raminthank you professor.

i understand that I should come up with the questions, i just wanted to have an example in mind, because sometimes i ask many dump questions, and i don’t know which i should follow.

some of my questions are like:

1.how on earth gauss came up with that solution?

2.or after solving a problem i ask myself why did it take me so long to see this obvious point?

3.or can i solve it without any tricks, just ordinary, mainstream deduction?

4.why is the solution working?

5.is the solution a special case of some thing bigger?(i always feel like it should be. it really bothers me to have a solution that i don’t understand. even if i have come up with it myself)

but if i understand correctly the focus of dump questions should be on mathematical knowledge not on problem solving or things of that sort. so maybe questions 1 and 2 are not that good. Am i correct?

do you think my other questions can be fruitful?

5 January, 2014 at 2:29 am

BastiI think that 1 is a good question. This is mainly because it leads you to look for different ways of proving the identity. Usually it is proved by induction on the already established equation, which, of course, can’t be the way the identity was originally found.

So, actually your question 1 explores into many interesting opportunities for research because you have to dig into the structure of the sequence.

(Gauss’ original proof is much more elegant and clear than the typical first semester induction exercise. Afaik, he first observed that adding the highest and lowest number in the progression always adds up to n+1 (1+n = n+1; 2 + (n-1) = n+1; …) and then he just observed that he can do this n/2 times until all the numbers have been exhausted, thus the sum equates to (n/2)(n+1).)

17 September, 2011 at 9:52 am

Hacerse preguntas « alexmoqui[…] para aprender matemáticas. En este post de Terence Tao se habla sobre este tema. En concreto, en este comentario Tao da numerosos ejemplos de cuestiones que uno puede preguntarse a partir del sencillo problema […]

6 December, 2011 at 3:28 am

Odiare la matematica - Dueallamenouno - ComUnità - l'Unità[…] blog, tra le qualità che un matematico deve sviluppare c’è sicuramente la capacità di fare domande stupide. Oggi questo non è incoraggiato nella scuola, e forse è da lì che bisogna ricominciare. Togliere […]

14 December, 2011 at 2:52 pm

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9 December, 2012 at 2:25 am

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27 March, 2013 at 11:38 pm

Learn and relearn your field -Terence Tao | Readings for the Distinguishing Palatte[…] See also “ask yourself dumb questions“. […]

1 May, 2013 at 9:41 am

Bored now | Mathematical Field Notes[…] the questions inside their heads, if they try to iron out the conflicts in their own understanding. Terry Tao, the Fields Medallist, recommends asking yourself “dumb” questions as a great way of learning, even (/especially) for researchers, because if you can’t work out […]

21 May, 2013 at 3:35 am

Sì, però, non è che si potrebbe rendere la matematica a scuola un pochino più interessante? - Maddmaths[…] tra le qualità che un matematico deve sviluppare c'è sicuramente la capacità di fare domande stupide. Oggi questo non è incoraggiato nella scuola, e forse è da lì che bisogna ricominciare. Togliere […]

21 May, 2013 at 3:45 am

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19 July, 2013 at 8:58 am

Does one have to be a genius to do maths? | Singapore Maths Tuition[…] to mathematics, one does need to work hard, learn one’s field well, learn other fields and tools, ask questions, talk to other mathematicians, and think about the “big picture”. And yes, a reasonable […]

10 December, 2013 at 9:33 pm

QuoraWhy do proofs in math textbooks so rarely make sense?I think this is a skill that one has to learn herself or himself. From my experience the best way to do so is to look at a proof and pick away the key components. From this one can learn the key machinery of a particular field and how those pieces of m…

3 February, 2014 at 6:39 pm

AntonioHello professor Terence Tao

I have read the quote above and I really like it, so I have related with one question I would like to ask you. How is the interactions between the process of creating mathematics, I mean, development of new mathematics, and the process of resolving or proofing theorems, lemmas or something like that uniquely ? because I sometimes ask myself about what should be more important, to resolve or proof things or create mathematics.

I’m undergraduate student and I’d really like what you think about this.

I must stress English is not my first language, so whether there are any grammatical mistake, I sorry for it.

thanks

16 February, 2014 at 8:30 am

AnonymousDear Prof. Tao

Today textbooks make it very hard for a student like me to tell what is the main point of a chapter and which parts are just details. so that we can ask questions related to that main point. and if I spend asking questions about every single proposition or definition in the textbook it will get a huge amount of time and I think one will get lost in all the details. what do you propose we do?

for example should we read the whole thing first and get the large idea then get back and ask questions or change the textbook or…??

6 February, 2015 at 5:27 pm

Career Advice by Prof Terence Tao, Mozart of Mathematics | MScMathematics[…] I find that “playing” with a problem, even after you have solved it, is very helpful for understanding the underlying mechanism of the solution better. For instance, one can try removing some hypotheses, or trying to prove a stronger conclusion. See “ask yourself dumb questions“. […]

16 April, 2015 at 10:22 pm

Ask yourself dumb questions – and answer them! | ressonliao[…] Ask yourself dumb questions – and answer them!. […]