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Volume 50 • Number 1

January 2013



To Let: Unsuccessful Stipulation, Bad Proof, and Paradox

by Laurence Goldstein

Letting is a common practice in mathematics. For example, we let x be the sum of the first n integers and, after a short proof, conclude that x = n(n+1)/2; we let J be the point where the bisectors of two of the angles of a triangle intersect and prove that this coincides with H, the point at which another pair of bisectors of the angles of that triangle intersect. Karl Weierstrass's colleagues, in an attempt to solve optimization problems, stipulated that the minimum area for a triangle with a given perimeter be a straight line segment conceived as a triangle with zero altitude. (Weierstrass complained that this obscured the insight that some problems have no solutions.) In mathematics applied to physics, we let x be the temperature in Fahrenheit corresponding to 30° Centigrade; we let v be the velocity of the Earth through the luminiferous ether. Before the error was spotted, the official rules for Little League Baseball made an inconsistent stipulation about the dimensions of home plate (Bradley 1996).

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ISSN: 2152-1123