A litany of errors, or James Bloody Grime’s Blasted Logarithms Revisited

Problems worthy of attack/
Prove their worth by fighting back
- Anon, often quoted by Erdos.

A few weeks ago, James bloody Grime posted a question on logarithms that I had a creditable stab at answering. My first answer, it turned out, was wrong.

I corrected it, and wrote up my second answer, and was jolly proud of the whole thing. At least until Jan van Lent posted a comment, correctly pointing out that I'd missed a subtlety in my working.

This isn't the first time in my career that this has happened - in fact, my PhD thesis confidently asserts that it's a complete catalogue of all of the possible answers to a particular problem - only for the student who took over my project when I finished to find one I'd missed.

Here's the thing: it happens.

It happens to cloggers like me, and it happens to geniuses. When Andrew Wiles announced the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, there was global acclaim - only for the proof to turn out to have a small but consequential error in it, which was soon patched up. Einstein was vehemently opposed to the Uncertainty principle. You could go through any list of great mathematicians and point to any number of errors any of them made, many of them uncorrected.

When you screw up, there's not much you can do, except smile, nod, thank whoever has pointed out your mistake, and try to put it right. You can take consolation in the thought that history is full of blundering fools - and that some of their blunders have turned out to be steps into genius.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


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