Yes, I agree. The title for this post is a little pretentious. It's certainly possible that there are other mathematical secrets that are more obvious than this one, but hey, I got your attention, right? Good. Because I'd like to tell you about an overarching theme in mathematics - a mathematical mantra, if you will. A technique that mathematicians use all the time to, well, do math.
I'm calling it a 'secret' because until recently, I've rarely (if ever?) heard it stated explicitly. This suggests to me that it's one of those things that folks assume you'll just eventually pick up. Hopefully. Like some sort of unspoken rule of mathematics. But a few weeks ago while chatting with my advisor*, I finally heard this unspoken rule uttered! Explicitly. Repeatedly, in fact. And at that time I realized it needs to be ushered further into the spotlight. Today's post, then, is my invitation to you to come listen in on that conversation.
So enough with the chit-chat! What's the secret? Here 'tis:
A mathematical object is determined by its relationships to other objects.
Practically speaking, this suggests that
an often fruitful way to discover properties of an object is NOT to investigate the object itself, but rather to study the collection of maps to or from the object.
Or to be a little less formal,
you can learn a lot about an object by studying its interactions with other things.
By "object" I mean things like sets or groups or measurable spaces or vector spaces or topological spaces or.... And by "maps" I mean the appropriate version of 'function': functions, group homomorphisms, measurable functions, linear transformations, continuous functions, and so on.
So now do you see why I'm calling this an obvious secret? We students have been using this technique - though perhaps unknowingly - since we were mathematical infants! We've known about functions since grade school. We've labored over properties of real-valued functions and their (anti)derivatives throughout Calculus. We became well-acquainted with linear transformations and their corresponding matrices in linear algebra. We battled with homomorphisms during the first week of undergrad abstract algebra. We finally learned the real definition of a continuous map in point-set topology. The list goes on and on.
See how pervasive this idea is? It's obvious!
And that's my point.
Because have you ever stopped to really think about it?
At first glance, perhaps it seems a little odd that "best" way to study an object is to divert your attention away from the object and focus on something else. But we do this all the time. Take people-watching, for instance. You can learn a lot about a person simply by looking at how they relate to the folks around them. And the same is true in mathematics.
I've hinted at this theme briefly in a previous post, but I'd like to list a few examples to further convince you. Keep in mind, though, that this is a philosophy that permeates throughout all of mathematics. So what I'm sharing below is peanuts compared to what's out there. But I hope it's enough to illustrate the idea.
In group theory...
In the mean time, how many examples of today's not-so-secret secret can you think of? I'd love to hear 'em. Let me know in the comments below!
*Yes! I have an advisor now! And since my written qualifying exams are out of the way, the next thing on my to-do list is passing the oral qual. I've also picked up a teaching assignment this year. For both of these reasons, blogging has been - and may continue to be - a little bit slow. But although my posts may become less frequent, I'm hoping the content will be richer. I'm almost positive they'll be more topology/category-flavored, too.