79 votes
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What's the famous story about a mathematician who gave a talk without saying a word?

You are most likely referring to the 1903 presentation by American mathematician Frank Cole. The original false conjecture was that the 67-th Mersenne number $M_{67}:=2^{67}-1$ is prime, and it goes ...
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41 votes
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What motivated Cantor to invent set theory?

An immediate motivation of Cantor to work on what became set theory was his earlier work on trigonometric series. To solve a problem in that domain he considered the set (a closed set) of zeros of ...
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  • 1,411
32 votes
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What hair color did Évariste Galois have?

Galois was imprisoned twice, at Sainte-Pélagie prison in 1831 and at La Force prison in 1832. The prison records are apparently retained in French archives. His prison record from Sainte-Pélagie is ...
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  • 2,521
28 votes
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Whose shoulders did Newton stand on?

We must locate this passage into a double context : the general historical context the specific context of the "rivalry" between Hooke and Newton. See Robert Purrington, The First Professional ...
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27 votes
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What is the difference between Calculus of Newton and that of Leibniz?

Newton's notation, Leibniz's notation and Lagrange's notation are all in use today to some extent they are respectively: $$\dot{f} = \frac{df}{dt}=f'(t)$$ $$\ddot{f} = \frac{d^2f}{dt^2}=f''(t)$$ You ...
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  • 736
26 votes
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Was Kolmogorov enraged after learning about the Karatsuba multiplication algorithm?

Karatsuba's own report can be found in his 1995 paper Сложность вычислений (Complexity of computations). The phrasing he uses is "сильно взволновалo", which Google does translate as "...
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26 votes
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Which mathematician traveled to and moved in with each collaborator?

The man is Paul Erdős. As pointed out by the OP in the comments, his "nomadic" lifestyle is briefly mentioned in the Brown Numbers - Numberphile video, 3.05-3.30. It is also concisely ...
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25 votes
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Did Abraham De Moivre really predict his own death?

This is a common claim which has been repeated enough times that one can find many sources claiming it to be true. However, this doesn't seem to be corroborated by accounts of the time or serious ...
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  • 2,732
23 votes
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Was Pólya’s “How To Solve It” originally written in German or English (or some other language)?

How To Solve It was originally published in English in 1945 by Princeton University Press in English, after being rejected by three other U.S. publishers. However, the original text at least started ...
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  • 2,732
23 votes

What was the relationship between Einstein and Minkowski?

A good account is Weinstein, Max Born, Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowski's Space-Time Formalism of Special Relativity. They did no have much of a relationship, what it was is well-summarized by ...
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20 votes
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What mathematical developments/discoveries caused imaginary numbers to gain acceptance at the time (18th century) they did?

The first serious use of complex numbers is in finding the roots of quadratic, cubic, and quartic polynomials. Cardano, in his Ars Magna (1545), first showed that quadratic equations could have (...
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20 votes
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Did Alfred Nobel collect his wealth by selling dynamite?

I too was told this story, by my father as we drove through Nobel, Ontario. While the main purpose of dynamite may never have been warfare, it most certainly was used for that purpose during his ...
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20 votes

What was different about Planck's quantization of light compared to Einstein's?

Unlike Einstein, Planck did not quantize electromagnetic waves themselves, only the exchanged energies, and even them only statistically. So the other two questions have no satisfactory answer because ...
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20 votes
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What were 12 year old Pitts' objections to Principia Mathematica?

This story bears characteristic signs of a tall tale, although in this case one can identify the origin. It appears to be an amalgamation of two anecdotes, neither of which is itself very credible. ...
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19 votes

What motivated Cantor to invent set theory?

Actually Cantor was working on a specific problem from the theory of trigonometric series, the so-called uniqueness problem (I cannot be more specific until MathJax is introduced to this site). This ...
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19 votes
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What cipher(s) did Isaac Newton use?

Newton used anagrams which are not the usual ciphers. It is not designed for a secret communication, but only for proving at a later time that you knew something. So nobody is supposed to be able to ...
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19 votes
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Did the pioneers of nuclear physics and radioactivity eventually get sick from their experiments?

Marie Curie is probably the most famous example of a person who died of the effects of radiation (handling a lot of radium mostly - for the discovery of which she won the Nobel prize in Chemistry). ...
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  • 758
19 votes

Claims of mathematical breakthroughs while in an altered state of consciousness?

Scientists and mathematicians rarely self-report on psychological circumstances of their creative process, at best presenting a rationalization of their path to discovery. Kekule's dream and Kepler's ...
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19 votes

Is this Einstein rejection letter fake?

According to this, it's a modern fabrication: Although Einstein’s initial application for a doctorate at the University of Bern (he had previously been awarded a PhD by the University of Zürich in ...
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  • 5,011
18 votes
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Hilbert's reaction to Gödel's incompleteness theorems

The paper 'Some facts about Kurt Gödel' by Wang (1981) (regrettably paywalled) contains a section that suggests Hilbert was not present when Gödel originally announced his sketch of the First ...
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  • 3,682
18 votes
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What did Fermat do as a lawyer?

Fermat wasn't so much a "lawyer" as a magistrat which means that he sat on successively higher levels of the Parlement of Toulouse, France. This period (17th century) was before the emergence of the ...
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  • 3,639
18 votes
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Did Richard Feynman ever meet Stephen Hawking or comment on Hawking radiation?

I take that your primary goal is to know what Feynman thought of Hawking's work. While it is possible that they have met I would consider it unlikely given that Feynman mentioned several times how his ...
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18 votes
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Does Arnold say that Hardy is responsible for Ramanujan's untimely death?

I think it is fairly obvious from the quote that Arnold is blaming Hardy's neglect for Ramanujan's death. The real question is whether his charge is supported by evidence. Arnold's evidence comes ...
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17 votes
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What kind of mathematical education did Leibniz have?

Mauro Allegranza's comment pretty much says it all but to elaborate a bit one could mention that Leibniz came to mathematics rather late in his intellectual career and was essentially a self-educated ...
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  • 3,639
17 votes

Literary works authored by mathematicians

Bertrand Russell wrote many books and essays on philosophy and social justice, and was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature. And the Persian mathematician Omar Khayyám wrote poetry: quatrains that ...
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  • 271
16 votes
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What was the connection between David Hilbert and Stefan Banach?

It is worth noting that the abstract definition of a Hilbert space (as a complete inner-product space) is not due to Hilbert. Weyl recounts the history in his memorial essay, "David Hilbert and His ...
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16 votes
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Who are some great scientists/mathematicians with not-so-great pre/mid-career credentials?

One of the most recent famous examples is Yitang Zhang, who proved in 2013 that, if $p_i$ denote primes, then $$ \liminf_{n\to\infty} (p_{n+1}-p_n)<7\times 10^7$$ i.e. there are infinitely many ...
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  • 3,682
16 votes
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Did Grothendieck really say that he felt "clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track"?

Yes, the quote is essentially authentic. This is from a typeset version "Récoltes et Semailles", specfically from "2.2 L’importance d’être seul." (To find the document online should be possible ...
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