This is from a reply I posted here to a question about gaining mathematical insight.
* Nothing is "obvious".
Try to be extremely formal with all of your proofs. Make sure your steps all follow immediately from previous steps, definitions or theorems. Spend some time proving the "really basic" properties that follow immediately from applying the definition. Also, ask yourself what sort of objects satisfy certain properties, and which don't. Eg. For complete metric spaces, come up with a "canonical" example of a complete metric space, a "canonical" incomplete metric space, and a degenerate example of each. For example, the discrete metric is complete (if you know about metric spaces, you may want to prove this), but it really doesn't match our intuition for what a complete metric space "should be."
On that note, try to understand what the intuition for a property or object is-- what does it "mean" for a set to be a group under an operation? Also, try to keep track of where intuition departs from math-- For example, we like to think of topological spaces geometrically, but there are some very non-geometric topological spaces.
* Rewrite the same thing as many different ways as you can.
For example, if the problem asks a question about a normal subgroup, you should be thinking of all the characterizations of normality-- It's the kernel of a homomorphism, it's invariant under conjugatian (which really is the same as its left and right cosets are the same), if a and b are in the same coset of N, then a-b is in N.
* When working on a proof, pay attention to everywhere you use your assumptions.
* After writing a proof, make sure the result seems to make sense.
Does it match up with intuition? If not, figure out why. If the problem is with your intuition, try to figure out what you are assuming to be true, and make a note of it.
Are any basic examples of the structure a counter-example to your "theorem"? Does each step follow from the last? Are you sure?
(I have a friend who has written 3 or 4 wrong proofs this semester, and every time, he realized it was wrong based on these checks, although normally I had to pick out the false step for him :D )
* Learn to look for counter-examples.
If you're asked to prove something wrong, look at some basic examples of the structure you're looking at. Does the statement hold for them? If so, can you see what properties make it work? If so, try to come up with an example where that property doesn't hold. Does the statement fail now? Rinse and repeat.
* Rewrite your assumptions. Rewrite them in different words. Rewrite them with the definitions of any terms you are uncomfortable with.
* Look for connections.
* Rewrite any objects you're looking at in terms of other objects. The complement of an open set is closed. The complement of a closed set is open. A connected space has proper (non-empty) clopen sets. g is in the Center of G means gh=hg for any h.
* State the obvious. Often. And then state it again.
* Ask stupid questions. Then answer them.
Is R complete? Why is a polynomial continuous? Is Z abelian? Finitely generated? What about Z^n? What does Abelian mean anyway?
* Don't be afraid to ask someone else stupid questions.
* Don't be discouraged when you sit for hours without understanding what to do; let the gears keep grinding.
Put on some music and rock out while you think. Rewrite the assumptions. Try to do something. When you get stuck, try to figure out why that doesn't work. Does it get you anywhere at all?
* Don't be afraid to go do something else for an hour or 2 and then come back to work on a problem.
This is when some of the best insights happen-- go make some tea, read a book, watch a movie, get coffee with a friend, do something. Then come back and start again. Sometimes it'll be hard to get back in the zone-- redo some easier problems: Try to reword your argument or try to find a cleaner argument.
* Work on a simpler problem.
Need to separate two compact sets? Don't! separate a compact set from a point. Can you use this same argument again? Will a similar argument work for two sets?
* Work on a more general problem.
Don't show that n is divisible by 3, show that all numbers of a certain form are divisible by 3. Then show that n has that form.
Hope these give you something useful to think about.
Arbtirary thoughts on nearly everything from a modernist poet, structural mathematician and functional programmer.
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