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A conjecture is a proposition that is unproven but appears correct and has not been disproven. Karl Popper pioneered the use of the term "conjecture" in scientific philosophy. Conjecture is contrasted by hypothesis (hence theory, axiom, principle), which is a testable statement based on accepted grounds. In mathematics, a conjecture is an unproven proposition or theorem that appears correct.

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Famous conjectures

Until recently, the most famous conjecture was Fermat's Last Theorem. The conjecture taunted mathematicians for over three centuries before Andrew Wiles, a Princeton University research mathematician, finally proved it in 1995, and now it may properly be called a theorem.

Other famous conjectures include:

The Langlands program is a far-reaching web of these ideas of 'unifying conjectures' that link different subfields of mathematics, e.g. number theory and the representation theory of Lie groups; some of these conjectures have since been proved.

Counter Examples

Formal mathematics is based on provable truth. In mathematics, any number of cases supporting a conjecture, no matter how large, is insufficient for establishing the conjecture's veracity, since a single counterexample would immediately bring down the conjecture. Conjectures disproven through counterexample are sometimes referred to as a false conjectures (cf. Pólya conjecture).

Mathematical journals sometimes publish the minor results of research teams having extended a given search farther than previously done before. For instance, the Collatz conjecture, which concerns whether or not certain sequences of integers terminate, has been tested for all integers up to 1.2 × 10 12 (over a million millions). In practice, however, it is extremely rare for this type of work to yield a counter-example and such efforts are generally regarded as mere displays of computing power, rather than meaningful contributions to formal mathematics.

Use of conjectures in conditional proofs

Sometimes a conjecture is called a hypothesis when it is used frequently and repeatedly as an assumption in proofs of other results. For example, the Riemann hypothesis is a conjecture from number theory that (amongst other things) makes predictions about the distribution of prime numbers. Few number theorists doubt that the Riemann hypothesis is true (it is said that Atle Selberg was once a sceptic, and J. E. Littlewood always was). In anticipation of its eventual proof, some have proceeded to develop further proofs which are contingent on the truth of this conjecture. These are called conditional proofs: the conjectures assumed appear in the hypotheses of the theorem, for the time being.

These "proofs", however, would fall apart if it turned out that the hypothesis was false, so there is considerable interest in verifying the truth or falsity of conjectures of this type.

Undecidable conjectures

Not every conjecture ends up being proven true or false. The continuum hypothesis, which tries to ascertain the relative cardinality of certain infinite sets, was eventually shown to be undecidable (or independent) from the generally accepted set of axioms of set theory. It is therefore possible to adopt this statement, or its negation, as a new axiom in a consistent manner (much as we can take Euclid's parallel postulate as either true or false).

In this case, if a proof uses this statement, researchers will often look for a new proof that doesn't require the hypothesis (in the same way that it is desirable that statements in Euclidean geometry be proved using only the axioms of neutral geometry, i.e. no parallel postulate.) The one major exception to this in practice is the axiom of choice—unless studying this axiom in particular, the majority of researchers do not usually worry whether a result requires the axiom of choice.

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Simple English

A conjecture is an idea in mathematics that appears likely to be true but that has not been proven to be true.

After a conjecture is proven true, it becomes a theorem.

Famous conjectures

Until recently, the most famous conjecture was the badly named Fermat's last theorem. The name is wrong, because Fermat claimed to have found a clever proof of it, but no proof could be found among his notes after his death. The conjecture challenged mathematicians for over three centuries before a British mathematician Andrew Wiles could finally prove it in 1993. Now it is properly called a theorem.

Other famous conjectures include:

Undecidable conjectures

Not every conjecture can be proven true or false. The continuum hypothesis, which says something about some properties of certain infinite sets is such an example. It was shown to be undecidable (or independent) from the generally accepted set of axioms of set theory. It is therefore possible to take this statement, or its negation, as a new axiom in a consistent manner (much as we can take Euclid's parallel postulate as either true or false).

In this case, if a proof uses this statement, researchers will often look for a new proof that does not require the hypothesis The one major exception to this in practice is the axiom of choice -- unless studying this axiom in particular, the majority of researchers do not usually worry whether a result requires the axiom of choice.


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