There are certain things that *only* work in maths mode. If your
document is not in maths mode and you have an `_`

or a `^`

character,
TeX (and by inheritance, LaTeX too) will say

! Missing $ insertedas if you couldn’t possibly have misunderstood the import of what you were typing, and the only possible interpretation is that you had committed a typo in failing to enter maths mode. TeX, therefore, tries to patch things up by inserting the

It’s not just the single-character maths sub- and superscript
operators: anything that’s built in or declared as a maths operation,
from the simplest lower-case `\alpha`

through the inscrutable
`\mathchoice`

primitive, and beyond, will provoke the error if
misused in text mode.

LaTeX offers a command `\ensuremath`

, which will put you in maths
mode for the execution of its argument, if necessary: so if you want
an `\alpha`

in your running text, say
`\ensuremath`

`{`

; if the bit of running text somehow
transmutes into a bit of mathematics, the `\alpha`

}`\ensuremath`

will become
a no-op, so it’s pretty much always safe.

This question on the Web: http://www.tex.ac.uk/cgi-bin/texfaq2html?label=nodollar