We all know the (apparently verified1) anecdote recounting George Dantzig arriving late to a lecture (by Jerzy Neyman), and later solving two open problems written on the board, mistaking them for homework. My question is:

Q. Are there other examples of a similar misunderstanding that led to the solution of an unsolved problem?

Perhaps even in an exam, where an exam question's novel solution led to a new perspective on the topic? This possibility inspired by Interesting things you learned while grading?.

1 Mentioned in Dantzig's obituaries.


William Tutte apparently introduced the concept of the thickness of a graph. I have a memory of reading or being told that the concept of the coarseness of a graph arose because Paul Erdos misunderstood the definition of thickness.

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