Nautilus

Why Mathematicians Can’t Find the Hay in a Haystack

Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine‘s Abstractions blog.

In math, sometimes the most common things are the hardest to find.Photograph by Vladyslav Danilin / Shutterstock

The first time I heard a mathematician use the phrase, I was sure he’d misspoken. We were on the phone, talking about the search for shapes with certain properties, and he said, “It’s like looking for hay in a haystack.”

“Don’t you mean a needle?” I almost

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