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Suppose that two researchers, say, Y. Yubaba and Z. Zeniba have proven an original mathematical theorem that I want to use.

I would like to name it the Yubaba-Zeniba theorem. Is it proper etiquette to ask for permission first to use their names in that way or are names good to go in general?

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    If the theorem is published, there is no problem in naming it this way.
    – markvs
    Jan 19 at 12:01
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    There is a story of a very famous mathematician, I can't remember his name, say Xerxes, who went to one of his colleagues and asked what is the "Xerxes Theorem" I'm reading about. Someone else had named it in his honor. Perhaps it is apocryphal and perhaps someone can supply the name. I heard the story half a century ago.
    – Buffy
    Jan 19 at 21:11
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    @Buffy You likely mean the story about Hilbert asking about the definition of a Hilbert Space, see here.
    – Mark
    Jan 19 at 21:27
  • @Mark, yes, that resonates. I had Hilbert in my mind as I wrote the comment actually. Thanks.
    – Buffy
    Jan 19 at 21:29
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    I found myself referring to "Anning's Theorem" when I needed a convenient way to refer to something which would otherwise be really unwieldy and cumbersome to describe: proofwiki.org/wiki/Anning%27s_Theorem Jan 19 at 23:55

3 Answers 3

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

The normal way to do it is state it as "Theorem (Yubaba-Zeniba [YZ])" and it's up to you how you then refer to it in the text, e.g., "the Yubaba-Zeniba Theorem", "Yubaba and Zeniba's Theorem", etc.

The only caveat is if they have another, or many, well-known theorems, then I would either qualify it more (e.g., the "Yubaba-Zeniba Vanishing Theorem") or use the possessive form rather than "the Yubaba-Zeniba Theorem" or refer to it by the theorem number in the text to prevent confusion with their other results

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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.

I wouldn't think of it as "asking for permission" but asking for "suitability." Situations where you might regret not checking with the authors:

  1. The original authors, or other authors, have already started calling the theorem by another name.
  2. Yubaba did not contribute to that part of the paper, and believes Zeniba should get all the credit.
  3. The statement of the theorem made by Yubaba and Zeniba is a special case of a more general and widely applicable theorem, which was not included in that paper but perhaps has been proven elsewhere in the meantime.

I've never been in this exact situation myself, so perhaps I am being overly cautious.

I did once have the temptation to name an amazing insight after the person from whose paper I learned it, only to later learn that the insight was a relatively small generalization of a 30-year-old result I was not aware of at the time.

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I generally agree with colleagues here that it shouldn't be a problem. But, it would be prudent to point that this can often go wrong. It is often the case, for example, that the people who popularise a theorem are very different from the people who first describe it, or first put the most non-trivial building blocks that allowed others to popularize it in the first place. Sometimes what is an incremental and what is a fundamental contribution is not clear.

In your case it may be clear that these two, and only these two authors have worked on this problem; but in cases where it's not, particularly if the missing authors themselves (or often enough, their national bodies in posthumous situations) would consider them ignored pioneers of that work.

I can think of many examples of people/nations with grievances of this kind. This is especially true in medicine, where people (or often, their birthplaces) try to eponymize diseases all the time.

The most obvious example that first comes to mind to me (as a Greek person) is Behçet's disease, which as the wikipedia page calmly states, "is sometimes also known as Adamantiades-Behçet's disease".

What this calm statement hides behind it is that the two wikipedia entries have almost been a battleground of edits between people of Greek and Turkish origin, defending what the correct name to use is, etc. You can see some of this still remaining in the talk pages, but these typically get cleaned out of view, hiding such battlescars!

Tellingly, if you look for Adamantiades in the English wikipedia, you will be redirected to Behçet's disease; if you look for Behçet in the Greek wikipedia, you will be redirected to Adamantiades-Behçet's disease :)

Behçet's disease is particularly interesting, given the information in the article:

  • It was "first formally first described by H. Planner and F. Remenovsky, who published their findings in 1922"
  • Behçet, an eminent Turkish dermatologist and scientist, first (?) recognizes the three main symptoms of the syndrome in one of his patients in 1924 (but no publication is made at the time).
  • Adamantiades presents independent (?) work at the Medical Society of Athens in 1930, identifying the three major signs of the disease, and insisting in their classification as a single clinical entity. This results in a publication in 1931 in Greek and French medical journals.
  • Behçet subsequently reports his own research on the disease in the Journal of Skin and Venereal Diseases in 1936.

So the implication here is: the two people who first really discovered this, are not even contenders for the name here; Behçet's largest contribution here was presumably being among the pioneers who described this disease, ostensibly not the very first, but certainly the most eminent, and the one who published in the most impactful journal, the one whose contribution actually reached the most eyes and had the most impact, and thus (perhaps rightfully) the name most now associated with the disease.

So, yes. I think it's mostly ok, but just keep in mind there's always a small chance you might accidentally start World War 3 in a 'butterfly flapping its wings' kind of way if you're not too careful :p

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