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The Weierstrass function is continuous everywhere but differentiable nowhere.

In mathematics, when a mathematical phenomenon runs counter to some intuition, then the phenomenon is sometimes called pathological. On the other hand, if a phenomenon does not run counter to intuition, it is sometimes called well-behaved. These terms are sometimes useful in mathematical research and teaching, but there is no strict mathematical definition of pathological or well-behaved.[1]

In analysis

A classic example of a pathology is the Weierstrass function, a function that is continuous everywhere but differentiable nowhere.[1] The sum of a differentiable function and the Weierstrass function is again continuous but nowhere differentiable; so there are at least as many such functions as differentiable functions. In fact, using the Baire category theorem, one can show that continuous functions are generically nowhere differentiable.[2]

Such examples were deemed pathological when they were first discovered: To quote Henri Poincaré:[3]

Logic sometimes breeds monsters. For half a century there has been springing up a host of weird functions, which seem to strive to have as little resemblance as possible to honest functions that are of some use. No more continuity, or else continuity but no derivatives, etc. More than this, from the point of view of logic, it is these strange functions that are the most general; those that are met without being looked for no longer appear as more than a particular case, and they have only quite a little corner left them.

Formerly, when a new function was invented, it was in view of some practical end. To-day they are invented on purpose to show our ancestors' reasonings at fault, and we shall never get anything more than that out of them.

If logic were the teacher's only guide, he would have to begin with the most general, that is to say, with the most weird, functions. He would have to set the beginner to wrestle with this collection of monstrosities. If you don't do so, the logicians might say, you will only reach exactness by stages.

— Henri Poincaré, Science and Method (1899), (1914 translation), page 125

Since Poincaré, nowhere differentiable functions have been shown to appear in basic physical and biological processes such as Brownian motion and in applications such as the Black-Scholes model in finance.

Counterexamples in Analysis is a whole book of such counterexamples.[4]

Another example of pathological function is Du-Bois Reymond continuous function, that can't be represented as a Fourier series.[5]

In topology

One famous counterexample in topology is the Alexander horned sphere, showing that topologically embedding the sphere S2 in R3 may fail to separate the space cleanly. As a counterexample, it motivated mathematicians to define the tameness property, which suppresses the kind of wild behavior exhibited by the horned sphere, wild knot, and other similar examples.[6]

Like many other pathologies, the horned sphere in a sense plays on infinitely fine, recursively generated structure, which in the limit violates ordinary intuition. In this case, the topology of an ever-descending chain of interlocking loops of continuous pieces of the sphere in the limit fully reflects that of the common sphere, and one would expect the outside of it, after an embedding, to work the same. Yet it does not: it fails to be simply connected.

For the underlying theory, see Jordan–Schönflies theorem.

Counterexamples in Topology is a whole book of such counterexamples.[7]


Mathematicians (and those in related sciences) very frequently speak of whether a mathematical object—a function, a set, a space of one sort or another—is "well-behaved". While the term has no fixed formal definition, it generally refers to the quality of satisfying a list of prevailing conditions, which might be dependent on context, mathematical interests, fashion, and taste. To ensure that an object is "well-behaved", mathematicians introduce further axioms to narrow down the domain of study. This has the benefit of making analysis easier, but produces a loss of generality of any conclusions reached.

In both pure and applied mathematics (e.g., optimization, numerical integration, mathematical physics), well-behaved also means not violating any assumptions needed to successfully apply whatever analysis is being discussed.

The opposite case is usually labeled "pathological". It is not unusual to have situations in which most cases (in terms of cardinality or measure) are pathological, but the pathological cases will not arise in practice—unless constructed deliberately.

The term "well-behaved" is generally applied in an absolute sense—either something is well-behaved or it is not. For example:

Unusually, the term could also be applied in a comparative sense:

Pathological examples

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Pathological examples often have some undesirable or unusual properties that make it difficult to contain or explain within a theory. Such pathological behaviors often prompt new investigation and research, which leads to new theory and more general results. Some important historical examples of this are:

At the time of their discovery, each of these was considered highly pathological; today, each has been assimilated into modern mathematical theory. These examples prompt their observers to correct their beliefs or intuitions, and in some cases necessitate a reassessment of foundational definitions and concepts. Over the course of history, they have led to more correct, more precise, and more powerful mathematics. For example, the Dirichlet function is Lebesgue integrable, and convolution with test functions is used to approximate any locally integrable function by smooth functions.[Note 1]

Whether a behavior is pathological is by definition subject to personal intuition. Pathologies depend on context, training, and experience, and what is pathological to one researcher may very well be standard behavior to another.

Pathological examples can show the importance of the assumptions in a theorem. For example, in statistics, the Cauchy distribution does not satisfy the central limit theorem, even though its symmetric bell-shape appears similar to many distributions which do; it fails the requirement to have a mean and standard deviation which exist and that are finite.

Some of the best-known paradoxes, such as Banach–Tarski paradox and Hausdorff paradox, are based on the existence of non-measurable sets. Mathematicians, unless they take the minority position of denying the axiom of choice, are in general resigned to living with such sets.[citation needed]

Computer science

In computer science, pathological has a slightly different sense with regard to the study of algorithms. Here, an input (or set of inputs) is said to be pathological if it causes atypical behavior from the algorithm, such as a violation of its average case complexity, or even its correctness. For example, hash tables generally have pathological inputs: sets of keys that collide on hash values. Quicksort normally has time complexity, but deteriorates to when it is given input that triggers suboptimal behavior.

The term is often used pejoratively, as a way of dismissing such inputs as being specially designed to break a routine that is otherwise sound in practice (compare with Byzantine). On the other hand, awareness of pathological inputs is important, as they can be exploited to mount a denial-of-service attack on a computer system. Also, the term in this sense is a matter of subjective judgment as with its other senses. Given enough run time, a sufficiently large and diverse user community (or other factors), an input which may be dismissed as pathological could in fact occur (as seen in the first test flight of the Ariane 5).


Main article: Exceptional object

A similar but distinct phenomenon is that of exceptional objects (and exceptional isomorphisms), which occurs when there are a "small" number of exceptions to a general pattern (such as a finite set of exceptions to an otherwise infinite rule). By contrast, in cases of pathology, often most or almost all instances of a phenomenon are pathological (e.g., almost all real numbers are irrational).

Subjectively, exceptional objects (such as the icosahedron or sporadic simple groups) are generally considered "beautiful", unexpected examples of a theory, while pathological phenomena are often considered "ugly", as the name implies. Accordingly, theories are usually expanded to include exceptional objects. For example, the exceptional Lie algebras are included in the theory of semisimple Lie algebras: the axioms are seen as good, the exceptional objects as unexpected but valid.

By contrast, pathological examples are instead taken to point out a shortcoming in the axioms, requiring stronger axioms to rule them out. For example, requiring tameness of an embedding of a sphere in the Schönflies problem. In general, one may study the more general theory, including the pathologies, which may provide its own simplifications (the real numbers have properties very different from the rationals, and likewise continuous maps have very different properties from smooth ones), but also the narrower theory, from which the original examples were drawn.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Weisstein, Eric W. "Pathological". Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  2. ^ "Baire Category & Nowhere Differentiable Functions (Part One)". Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  3. ^ Kline, Morris (1990). Mathematical thought from ancient to modern times. Oxford University Press. p. 973. OCLC 1243569759.
  4. ^ Gelbaum, Bernard R. (1964). Counterexamples in analysis. John M. H. Olmsted. San Francisco: Holden-Day. ISBN 0-486-42875-3. OCLC 527671.
  5. ^ Jahnke, Hans Niels (2003). A history of analysis. History of mathematics. Providence (R.I.): American mathematical society. p. 187. ISBN 978-0-8218-2623-2.
  6. ^ Weisstein, Eric W. "Alexander's Horned Sphere". Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  7. ^ Steen, Lynn Arthur (1995). Counterexamples in topology. J. Arthur Seebach. New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-68735-X. OCLC 32311847.


  1. ^ The approximations converge almost everywhere and in the space of locally integrable functions.

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