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The current answers to the Academia HNQ Should I ask for permission to name a mathematical theorem? include the following (small excerpts):

There is no need to ask permission, and mostly likely they will be happy to have the theorem referred to with their names.

and

I suppose there is no formal need to ask for permission, but

  1. I see no harm in doing so.
  2. I see the potential for harm in not doing so.

The first can be loosely paraphrased as "go for it" and "it would be bad if you didn't" but the second seems like excellent advice.

I thought I'd ask here if there are any examples that might inspire words of caution as expressed in the 2nd answer, so I'd like to ask:

Question: Has there ever been a case where someone wished a theorem or important result wasn't named after them? Has it happened more than once?

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    $\begingroup$ The only case that I can imagine if when the theorem is wrong, and then your error gets known as "Kirmse's mistake" or "Lame's flawed proof" etc. Normally people are upset that a result isn't named after them. $\endgroup$
    – Kimball
    Jan 22 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ There is something in information theory called "Mrs Gerber's Lemma", named (without permission) after a living person who made no technical contribution to its formulation or proof. I do not know if she ever knew about this. $\endgroup$ Jan 23 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't call this an important result, but the Parker square springs to mind nonetheless. $\endgroup$
    – user16117
    Jan 23 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ A near-miss rather than an answer, but the Alpher–Bethe–Gamow paper only included Bethe as a coauthor for the sake of the pun, and while Bethe seems not to have minded (pace a rumour that he considered changing his name when the theory was "on the rocks"), Alpher was apparently rather dismayed that Bethe's name was included as it threatened to overshadow his genuine contribution. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$
    – dbmag9
    Jan 23 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ @ruakh yes I see what you mean, I've made an edit and adjusted my introduction. Thank you for calling this to my attention! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jan 24 at 0:24

8 Answers 8

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On the Löwenheim–Skolem theorem:

It is somewhat ironic that Skolem's name is connected with the upward direction of the theorem as well as with the downward direction:

"I follow custom in calling Corollary 6.1.4 the upward Löwenheim-Skolem theorem. But in fact Skolem didn't even believe it, because he didn't believe in the existence of uncountable sets." – Hodges (1993).

"Skolem [...] rejected the result as meaningless; Tarski [...] very reasonably responded that Skolem's formalist viewpoint ought to reckon the downward Löwenheim-Skolem theorem meaningless just like the upward." – Hodges (1993).

"Legend has it that Thoralf Skolem, up until the end of his life, was scandalized by the association of his name to a result of this type, which he considered an absurdity, nondenumerable sets being, for him, fictions without real existence." – Poizat (2000).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%B6wenheim%E2%80%93Skolem_theorem#Historical_notes

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According to a recent episode of PBS Space Time, Freeman Dyson "regretted" the Dyson Sphere being named after him.

According to the Wikipedia article

Dyson was not the first to advance this idea. He was inspired by the 1937 science fiction novel Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon,...

The PBS episode states that Dyson referred to the concept as the Stapledon Sphere as Dyson was trying to "avoid having his own name attached to the idea".

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    $\begingroup$ Definitely a nice answer to the spirit of the question (as the OP confirms) — but perhaps worth noting it isn’t really an answer to the question as written, since it’s a concept/invention, not a “theorem or significant result”. $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 14:00
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I cannot easily document the chatter about it, but G. ("Beppo", for "Giuseppe") Levi in 1906 used what we'd now call a "Sobolev space", to prove an actual (=true) minimum principle for certain vector spaces of functions. (Thus, actually giving a true, and, mercifully, sufficient version of "Dirichlet's principle" (about existence and uniqueness of a maximizing vector...) for most applications.)

The story I'd heard is that "the French" referred to such spaces (in French) as "the spaces of Beppo Levi", and pronounced in such a way that was somehow degrading to Levi.

Apparently, Levi objected to this... and, since the rest of Levi's life he worked on other things, his name was removed from such reference, and now it's "Sobolev spaces". There are various pseudo-historical accounts of how Sobolev came to agree to that renaming, etc. I cannot vouch for any of that, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, now I want to ask in French SE "How can 'the spaces of Beppo Levi' be translated into French, then pronounced in such a way that it would somehow sound degrading to Levi?" but I'm too shy. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jan 23 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh, I gather (not easily documentable) that somehow that current pronunciation of "les espaces de Beppo Levi" was somehow annoying to him... Long time ago... :) $\endgroup$ Jan 23 at 1:25
  • $\begingroup$ I can imagine it. I'm quite comfortable living in my own private Idaho, off "in space" by myself for example, but perhaps other people might feel uncomfortable with the imagery $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jan 23 at 1:28
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh The French could have pronounced the name with the accent on the final syllable and would have also probably not pronounced the double p of Beppo (as much as many foreigners do not pronounce the double s in my name). So, they could have pronounced it as Bepò Levì. I wouldn’t have found it annoying, but people can be annoyed by much anything. $\endgroup$ Jan 23 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh: I am French and tried to pronounce that the "wrong" way (even loud, to the surprised look on my wife's face). I have no idea how it can sound bad. $\endgroup$
    – WoJ
    Jan 24 at 17:25
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Diffie–Hellman key exchange is not a case where a person wishes it weren't named after them per se, but it is a case where they are unhappy that it is named after them while excluding another contributor:

In 2002, Hellman suggested the algorithm be called Diffie–Hellman–Merkle key exchange in recognition of Ralph Merkle's contribution to the invention of public-key cryptography (Hellman, 2002), writing:

"The system...has since become known as Diffie–Hellman key exchange. While that system was first described in a paper by Diffie and me, it is a public key distribution system, a concept developed by Merkle, and hence should be called 'Diffie–Hellman–Merkle key exchange' if names are to be associated with it. I hope this small pulpit might help in that endeavor to recognize Merkle's equal contribution to the invention of public key cryptography."

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Let me tell two anecdotes related to the question:

  1. Once during a seminar talk Hilbert asked: "What is a Hilbert space?"

  2. Arnold, apparently envious for so many things named after Anosov, once proposed the term "Anosov's jet" (струя Аносова, in Russian) Anosov's reaction is not recorded, but everyone was sure that he was not happy:-)

Remark. Sometimes a term containing a name can be indeed ridiculous, for example look at the title of this paper https://arxiv.org/abs/0904.1403. As far as I know, Devaney was not offended:-)

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    $\begingroup$ Why was Anosov unhappy with something being named "Anosov's jet"? $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Jan 23 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 From what I know of Russian, it seems like the joke was that "струя Аносова" is a homophone of "струя носова" ("я" is pronounced like "ya"), which means something like "nasal stream"/"nasal jet" (sneeze of snot). $\endgroup$ Jan 23 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding the Hilbert anecdote: James Yorke says he does the same thing with Li–Yorke chaos. However, his concern is more that the respective work is not about defining chaos rather than being unhappy about being named for it. So he more objects to the chaos part of the term than the Yorke part. $\endgroup$
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jan 24 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 : Because the Russian words "струя Аносова" can also be translated as "Anosov's stream" and strongly imply "Anosov's urine stream". $\endgroup$
    – akhmeteli
    Jan 25 at 7:36
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A near miss that I found is Lewis Fry Richardson, from Wikipedia: "According to Thomas Körner, the discovery that his meteorological work was of value to chemical weapons designers caused him to abandon all his efforts in this field, and destroy findings that he had yet to publish."

Perhaps some other exists who published first and then found that their work had applications that they found objectionable after it was too late--I found Richardson by searching for mathematicians who were also peace activists, but you could search the other way by finding named theorems which were used for especially objectionable things.

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There's a story, weakly cited on his wikipedia page (citation goes to a specific page in a book which doesn't seem to back it up, but I can't read the next page in the google books preview so maybe it's there) that Paul Dirac referred to what everyone else calls "Fermi-Dirac statistics" as "Fermi statistics", and "for reasons of symmetry" called the other type "Bose statistics" instead of "Bose-Einstein statistics".

I've also heard a story that I can't back up at all (and so is possibly apocryphal) that whenever someone would refer to Rabi cycles or the Rabi frequency in a conference, if he was in the audience he would stick his hand up and ask what they meant until they explained it in basic terms which didn't include his name.

Both of these are examples of alleged humility (though you could argue about how humble slowing down a talk is) rather than any dismay about the discoveries themselves.

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S.S. Chern resisted calling Chern classes by name for the longest time. He eventually gave in with a comment to the effect that everyone calls them by that name, so he should start too. I read the latter in one of his expository papers but cannot find it at the moment. Chern was a very humble man.

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