Category Archives: exposition

The most confusing notation in number theory

This is an observation in abstractmath that I think needs to be publicized more:

Two symbols used in the study of integers are notorious for their confusing similarity.

  • The expression “$m/n$” is a term denoting the number obtained by dividing $m$ by $n$. Thus “$12/3$” denotes $4$ and “$12/5$” denotes the number $2.4$.
  • The expression “$m|n$” is the assertion that “$m$ divides $n$ with no remainder”. So for example “$3|12$”, read “$3$ divides $12$” or “$12$ is a multiple of $3$”, is a true statement and “$5|12$” is a false statement.

Notice that $m/n$ is an integer if and only if $n|m$. Not only is $m/n$ a number and $n|m$ a statement, but the statement “the first one is an integer if and only if the second one is true” is correct only after the $m$ and $n$ are switched!

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Variable mathematical objects


In many mathematical texts, the variable $x$ may denote a real number, although which real number may not be specified. This is an example of a variable mathematical object. This point of view and terminology is not widespread, but I think it is worth understanding because it provides a deeper understanding of some aspects about how math is done.

Specific and variable mathematical objects

It is useful to distinguish between specific math objects and variable math objects.

Examples of specific math objects

  • The number $42$ (the math object represented as “42” in base $10$, “2A” in hexadecimal and “XLII” as a Roman numeral) is a specific math object. It is an abstract math object. It is not any of the representations just listed — they are just strings of letters and numbers.
  • The ordered pair $(4,3)$ is a specific math object. It is not the same as the ordered pair $(7,-2)$, which is another specific math object.
  • The sine function $\sin:\mathbb{R}\to\mathbb{R}$ is a specific math object. You may know that the sine function is also defined for all complex numbers, which gives another specific math object $\sin:\mathbb{C}\to\mathbb{C}$.
  • The group of symmetries of a square is a specific math object. (If you don’t know much about groups, the link gives a detailed description of this particular group.)

Variable math objects

Math books are full of references to math objects, typically named by a letter or a name, that are not completely specified. Some mathematicians call these variable objects (not standard terminology). The idea of a variable mathe­mati­cal object is not often taught as such in under­graduate classes but it is worth pondering. It has certainly clari­fied my thinking about expres­sions with variables.


  • If an author or lecturer says “Let $x$ be a real variable”, you can then think of $x$ as a variable real number. In a proof you can’t assume that $x$ is any particular real number such as $42$ or $\pi$.
  • If a lecturer says, “Let $(a,b)$ be an ordered pair of integers”, then all you know is that $a$ and $b$ are integers. This makes $(a,b)$ a variable ordered pair, specifically a pair of integers. The lecturer will not say it is a variable ordered pair since that terminology is not widely used. You have to understand that the phrase “Let $(a,b)$ be an ordered pair of integers” implies that it is a variable ordered pair just because “a” and “b” are letters instead of numbers.
  • If you are going to prove a theorem about functions, you might begin, "Let $f$ be a continuous function", and in the proof refer to $f$ and various objects connected to $f$. This makes $f$ a variable mathematical object. When you are proving things about $f$ you may use the fact that it is continuous. But you cannot assume that it is (for example) the sine function or any other particular function.
  • If someone says, “Let $G$ be a group” you can think of $G$ as a variable group. If you want to prove something about $G$ you are free to use the definition of “group” and any theorems you know of that apply to all groups, but you can’t assume that $G$ is any specific group.


A logician would refer to the symbol $f$, thought of as denoting a function, as a vari­able, and likewise the symbol $G$, thought of as denoting a group. But mathe­maticians in general would not use the word “vari­able” in those situa­tions.

How to think about variable objects

The idea that $x$ is a variable object means thinking of $x$ as a genuine mathematical object, but with limitations about what you can say or think about it. Specifically,

Some assertions about a variable math object
may be neither true nor false.


The statement, “Let $x$ be a real number” means that $x$ is to be regarded as a variable real number (usually called a “real variable”). Then you know the following facts:

  • The statement “${{x}^{2}}$ is not negative” is true.
  • The assertion “$x=x+1$” is false.
  • The assertion “$x\gt 0$” is neither true nor false.

Suppose you are told that $x$ is a real number and that ${{x}^{2}}-5x=-6$.

  • You know (because it is given) that the statement “${{x}^{2}}-5x=-6$” is true.
  • By doing some algebra, you can discover that the statement “$x=2$ or $x=3$” is true.
  • The statement “$x=2$ and $x=3$” is false, because $2\neq3$.
  • The statement “$x=2$” is neither true nor false, and similarly for “$x=3$”.
  • This situation could be described this way: $x$ is a variable real number varying over the set $\{2,3\}$.

This example may not be easy to understand. It is intended to raise your consciousness.

A prime pair is an ordered pair of integers $(n,n+2)$ with the property that both $n$ and $n+2$ are prime numbers.

Definition: $S$ is a PP set if $S$ is a set of pairs of integers with the property that every pair is a prime pair.

  • “$\{(3,5),(11,13)\}$ is a PP set” is true.
  • “$\{(5,7),(111,113),(149,151)\}$ is a PP set” is false.

Now suppose $SS$ is a variable PP set.

  • “$SS$ is a set” is true by definition.
  • “$SS$ contains $(7,9)$” is false.
  • “$SS$ contains $(3,5)$” is neither true nor false, as the examples just above show.
  • “$SS$ is an infinite set”:
    • This is certainly not true (see finite examples above).
    • This claim may be neither true nor false, or it may be plain false, because no one knows whether there is an infinite number of prime pairs.
    • The point of this example is to show that “we don’t know” doesn’t mean the same thing as “neither true nor false”.

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I have rewritten the entry to “power” in the Glossary:


Here are three variant phrases that say that $125=5^3$:

  • “$125$ is a power of $5$ with exponent $3$”.
  • “$125$ is the third power of $5$”.
  • “$125$ is $5$ to the third power”.

Some students are confused by such statements, and conclude that $3$ is the “power”. This usage appears in print in Wikipedia in its entry on Exponentiation (as it was on 22 November 2016):

“…$b^n$ is the product of multiplying $n$ bases:

\[b^n = \underbrace{b \times \cdots \times b}_n\]

In that case, $b^n$ is called the $n$-th power of $b$, or $b$ raised to the power $n$.”

As a result, students (and many mathematicians) refer to $n$ as the “power” in any expression of the form “$a^n$”. The number $n$ should be called the “exponent”. The word “power” should refer only to the result $a^n$. I know mathematical terminology is pretty chaotic, but it is silly to refer both to $n$ and to $a^n$ as the “power”.

Almost as silly as using $(a,b)$ to refer to an open interval, an ordered pair and the GCD. (See The notation $(a,b)$.)

Suggestion for lexicographical research: How widespread does referring to $n$ as the “power” come up in math textbooks or papers? (See usage.)

Thanks to Tomaz Cedilnik for comments on the first version of this entry.

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A slow introduction to category theory

Category theory turns math inside-out. Definitions depend on nothing inside, but on everything outside. — John Cook

About this post

This is a draft of the first part of an article on category theory that will be posted on It replaces an earlier version that was posted in June, 2016.

During the last year or so, I have been monitoring the category theory questions on Math Stack Exchange. Some of the queries are clearly from people who do not have enough of a mathematical background to understand basic abstract reasoning, for example the importance of definitions and the difficulties described in the abmath artice on Dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors. Category theory has become important in several fields outside mathematics, for example computer science and database theory.

This article is intended to get people started in category theory by giving a very detailed definition of “category” and some examples described in detail with an emphasis on how the example fits the definition of category. That’s all the present version does, but I intend to add some examples of constructions and properties such as the dual category, product, and other concepts that some of the inquirers on Math Stack Exchange had great difficulty with.

There is no way in which this article is a proper introduction to category theory. It is intended only to give beginners some help over the initial steps of understanding the subject, particularly the aspects of understanding that cause many hopeful math majors to fall off the Abstraction Cliff.

About categories

To be written.

Definition of category

A category is a type of Mathematical structure consisting of two types of data, whose relationships are entirely determined by some axioms. After the definition is complete, I introduce several example categories with a detailed discussion of each one, explaining how they fit the definition of category.

Axiom 1: Data

A category consists of two types of data: objects and arrows.

Notes for Axiom 1

  • You will see in the section on Examples of categories that every definition of a category $\mathsf{C}$ starts by specifying what the objects of $\mathsf{C}$ are and what the arrows of $\mathsf{C}$ are. That is what Axiom I requires.
  • An object of a category can be any kind of mathematical object. It does not have to be a set and it does not have to have elements.
  • Arrows of a category are also called morphisms. You may be familiar with “homomorphisms”, “homeomorphisms” or “isomorphisms”, all of which are functions. This does not mean that a “morphism” in an arbitrary category is a function.

Axiom 2: Domain and codomain

Each arrow of a category has a domain and a codomain, each of which is an object of the category.

Notes for Axiom 2

  • The domain and the codomain of an arrow may or may not be the same object.
  • Each arrow has only one domain and only one codomain.
  • If $f$ is an arrow with domain $A$ and codomain $B$, that fact is typically shown either by the notation “$f:A\to B$” or by a diagram like this:
  • Warning: The notation “$f:A\to B$” is like that used for functions. This notation may be used in any category, but it does not imply that $f$ is a function or that $A$ and $B$ have elements.
  • For an arrow $f:A\to B$, the notation “$\text{dom}(f)$” refers to $A$ and “$\text{cod}(f)$” refers to $B$.
  • For a given category $\mathsf{C}$, the collection of all the arrows with domain $A$ and codomain $B$ may be denoted by
    • “$\text{Hom}(A,B)$” or
    • “$\text{Hom}_\mathsf{C}(A,B)$” or
    • “$\mathsf{C}(A,B)$”.

  • Some newer books and articles in category theory use the name source for domain and target for codomain. This usage has the advantage that a newcomer to category theory will be less likely to think of an arrow as a function.

Axiom 3: Composition

If $f$ and $g$ are arrows in a category for which $\text{cod}(f)=\text{dom}(g)$, as in this diagram:

then there is a unique arrow with domain $A$ and codomain $C$ called the composite of $f$ and $g$.

Notes for Axiom 3

  • The unique arrow required by Axiom 3 may be denoted by “$g\circ f$” or “$gf$”. “$g\circ f$” is more explicit, but “$gf$” is much more commonly used by category theorists.
  • Many constructions in categories may be shown by diagrams, like the one used just above.
  • The diagram

    is said to commute if $h=g\circ f$.

  • It is useful to think of $f$ followed by $g$ as a path in the diagram. Then a metaphor for composition is: Every path of length 2 has exactly one composite.
  • It is customary in some texts in category theory to indicate that a diagram commutes by putting a gyre in the middle:
  • Note that the composite of the path that I described as “$f$ followed by $g$” is written as “$g\circ f$” or “$gf$”, which seems backward. Nevertheless, the most common notation in category theory for the composite of “$f$ followed by $g$” is $gf$. Some authors in computer science write “$f;g$” for “$gf$” to get around this problem.
  • The concept of category is an abstraction of the idea of function, and the composition of arrows is an abstraction of the composition of functions. It uses the same notation, “$g\circ f$”. If $f$ and $g$ are set functions, then for an element $x$ in the domain of $f$, \[(g\circ f)(x)=g(f(x))\]
  • But in arbitrary category, it may make no sense to evaluate an arrow $f$ at some element $x$; indeed, the domain of $f$ may not have elements at all, and then the statement “$(g\circ f)(x)=g(f(x))$” is meaningless.

Axiom 4: Identity arrows

Note: WordpPress does not recognize the html command

    . Axiom 1 should be 4a, Axiom 2 4b Axiom 3 4c and Axiom 4 4d.

  1. For each object $A$ of a category, there is an arrow denoted by $\mathsf{id}_A$.
  2. $\textsf{dom}(\textsf{id}_A)=A$ and $\textsf{cod}(\textsf{id}_A)=A$.
  3. For any object $B$ and any arrow $f:B\to A$, the diagram


  4. For any object $C$ and any arrow $g:A\to C$, the diagram


Notes for Axiom 4

  • The fact stated in Axiom 4(b) could be shown diagrammatically either as

    or as

  • Facts (c) and (d) can be written in algebraic notation: For any arrow $f$ going to $A$,\[\textsf{id}_A\circ f=f\]and for any arrow $g$ coming from $A$,\[g\circ \textsf{id}_A=g\]
  • There may be many arrows with domain and codomain both equal to $A$ (for example in the category $\mathsf{Set}$), but only one of them is $\textsf{id}_A$. It can be proved that $\textsf{id}_A$ is the unique arrow satisfying both (c) and (d) of the axiom.

Axiom 5: Associativity

  1. If $f$, $g$ and $h$ are arrows in a category for which $\text{cod}(f)=\text{dom}(g)$ and $\text{cod}(g)=\text{dom}(h)$, as in this diagram:

    then there is a unique arrow $k$ with domain $A$ and codomain $D$ called the composite of $f$, $g$ and $h$.

  2. In the diagram below, the two triangles containing $k$ must both commute.

Notes for Axiom 5

  • Axiom 5b requires that \[h\circ(g\circ f)=(h\circ g)\circ f\](which both equal $k$), which is the usual algebraic notation for associativity.
  • Note that the top two triangles commute by Axiom 3.
  • The associativity axiom means that we can get rid of parentheses and write \[k=h\circ f\circ g\]just as we do for addition and multiplication of numbers.
  • In my opinion the notation using categorical diagrams communicates information much more clearly than algebraic notation does. In particular, you don’t have to remember the domains and codomains of the functions — they appear in the picture. I admit that diagrams take up much more space, but now that we read math stuff on a computer screen instead of on paper, space is free.

Examples of categories

For these examples, I give a detailed explanation about how they fit the definition of category.

Example 1: MyFin

This first example is a small, finite category which I have named $\mathsf{MyFin}$ (“my finite category”). It is not at all an important category, but it has advantages as a first example.

  • It’s small enough that you can see all the objects and arrows on the screen at once, but big enough not to be trivial.
  • The objects and arrows have no properties other than being objects and arrows. (Some of the other examples involve familiar math objects.)
  • So in order to check that $\mathsf{MyFin}$ really obeys the axioms for a category, you can use only the skeletal information given here. As a result, you must really understand the axioms!

A correct proof will be based on axioms and theorems.
The proof can be suggested by your intuitions,
but intuitions are not enough.
When working with $\mathsf{MyFin}$ you won’t have any intuitions!

A diagram for $\mathsf{MyFin}$

This diagram gives a partial description of $\mathsf{MyFin}$.

Now let’s see how to make the diagram above into a category.

Axiom 1: Data

  • The objects of $\mathsf{MyFin}$ are $A$, $B$, $C$ and $D$.
  • The arrows are $f$, $g$, $h$, $j$, $k$, $r$, $s$, $u$, $v$, $w$ and $x$.
  • You can regard the letters just listed as names of the objects and arrows. The point is that at this stage all you know about the objects and arrows are their names.
  • If you prefer, you can think of the arrows as the actual arrows shown in the $\mathsf{MyFin}$ diagram.
  • Our definition of $\mathsf{MyFin}$ is an abstract definition. You may have seen multiplication tables of groups given in terms of undefined letters. (If you haven’t, don’t worry.) Those are also abstract definitions.
  • Our other definitions of categories involve math objects you actually know something about.

Axiom 2: Domain and Codomain

  • The domains and codomains of the arrows are shown by the diagram above.
  • For example, $\text{dom}(r)=A$ and $\text{cod}(r)=C$, and $\text{dom}(v)=\text{cod}(v)=B$.

Axiom 3: Composition

Showing the $\mathsf{MyFin}$ diagram does not completely define $\mathsf{MyFin}$. We must say what the composites of all the paths of length 2 are.

  • In fact, most of them are forced, but two of them are not.
  • We must have $g\circ f=r$ because $r$ is the only arrow possible for the composite, and Axiom 3 requires that every path of length 2 must have a composite.
  • For the same reason, $h\circ g=s$.
  • All the paths involving $u$, $v$, $w$ and $x$ are forced:

  • (p1) $u\circ u=u$, $v\circ v=v$, $w\circ w=w$ and $x\circ x=x$.
  • (p2) $f\circ u=f$, $r\circ u=r$, $j\circ u=j$ and $k\circ u=k$. You can see that, for example, $f\circ u=f$ by opening up the loop on $f$ like this:

    There is only one arrow going from $A$ to $B$, namely$f$, so $f$ has to be the composite $f\circ u$.

  • (p3) $v\circ f=f$, $g\circ v=g$ and $s\circ v=s$.
  • (p4) $w\circ g=g$, $w\circ r=r$ and $h\circ w=h$.
  • (p5) $x\circ h=h$, $x\circ s=s$, $x\circ j=j$ and $x\circ k=k$.
  • For $s\circ f$ and $h\circ r$, we have to choose between $j$ and $k$ as composites. Since $s\circ f=(h\circ g)\circ f$ and $h\circ r=h\circ (g\circ f)$, Axiom 3 requires that we must chose one of $j$ and $k$ to be both composites.

    Definition: $s\circ f=h\circ r=j$.

    If we had defined $s\circ f=h\circ r=k$ we would have a different category, although one that is “isomorphic” to $\mathsf{MyFin}$ (you have to define “isomorphic” or look it up.)

Axiom 4: Identity arrows

Axiom 5: Associativity

  • Since we have already required both $(h\circ g)\circ f$ and $h\circ(g\circ f)$ to be $k$, composition is associative.

Example 2: IntegerDiv

  • This example uses familiar mathematical objects — positive integers.
  • The arrows are not functions that can be applied to elements, since integers do not have elements.

Axiom 1: Data

  • The objects of IntegerDiv are all the positive integers.
  • Suppose $m$ and $n$ are positive integers:
  • If $m$ divides $n$, there is exactly one arrow from $m$ to $n$. I will call this arrow $\textsf{mdn}$. (This is my notation. There is no standard notation for this category.) For example there is one arrow from $2$ to $6$, denoted by $\textsf{2d6}$.
  • If $m$ does not divide $n$, there is no arrow from $m$ to $n$.

Axiom 2: Domain and codomain

The arrow denoted by $\textsf{mdn}$ has domain $m$ and codomain $n$.




which may also be shown as

Axiom 3: Composition

The composite of

must be $\textsf{rdt}$, since that is the only arrow with domain $r$ and codomain $t$.

This fact can also be written this way: \[\mathsf{sdt}\circ\textsf{rds}=\textsf{rdt}\]

Axiom 4: Identity arrows

The composites


must commute since the arrows shown are the only possible arrows with the domains and codomains shown. In other words, $\textsf{id}_\textsf{r}=\textsf{rdr}$ and $\textsf{id}_\textsf{s}=\textsf{sds}$.

Axiom 5: Associativity

In the diagram below,

there is only one arrow from one integer to another, so $\textsf{k}$ must be both \[\textsf{tdu}\circ(\textsf{sdt}\circ\textsf{rds})\] and \[(\textsf{tdu}\circ\textsf{sdt})\circ\textsf{rds}\] as required.

Example 3: The category of Sets

In this section, I define the category $\mathsf{Set}$ (that is standard terminology in category theory.) This example will be very different from $\mathsf{MyFin}$, because it involves known mathematical objects — sets and functions.

Axiom 1: Data

  • Every set is an object of $\mathsf{Set}$ and nothing else is.
  • Every function between sets is an arrow of $\mathsf{Set}$ and nothing else is an arrow of $\mathsf{Set}$.

Axiom 2: Domain and codomain

For a given function $f$, $\text{dom}(f)$ is the domain of the function $f$ in the usual sense, and $\text{cod}(f)$ is the codomain of $f$ in the usual sense. (See Functions: specification and definition for more about domain and codomain.)


  • Let $f:\mathbb{R}\to\mathbb{R}$ be the function defined by $f(x):=x^2$. Then the arrow $f$ in $\mathsf{Set}$ satisfies $\text{dom}(f)= \mathbb{R}$ and also $\text{cod}(f)=\mathbb{R}$.
  • Let $j:\{1,2,3\}\to\{1,2,3,4\}$ be defined by $j(1):=1$, $j(2):=4$ and $j(3):=3$. Then $\text{dom}(j)=\{1,2,3\}$ and $\text{cod}(j)=\{1,2,3,4\}$.

Axiom 3: Composition

The composite of $f:A\to B$ and $g:B\to C$ is the function $g\circ f:A\to C$ defined by \[\text{(DC)}\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,(g\circ f)(a):=g(f(a))\]


Many other categories have a similar definition of composition, including categories whose objects are math structures with underlying sets and whose arrows are structure-preserving functions between the underlying sets. But be warned: There are many useful categories whose arrows do not evaluate at an element of an object because the objects don’t have elements. In that case, (DC) is meaningless. This is true of $\mathsf{MyFin}$ and $\mathsf{IntegerDiv}$.

Axiom 4: Identity arrows

For a set $A$, the identity arrow $\textsf{id}_A:A\to A$ is, as you might expect, the identity function defined by $\textsf{id}_A(a)=a$ for every $a\in A$. We must prove that these diagrams commute:

The calculations below show that they commute. They use the definition of composite given by (DC).

  • For any $b\in B$, \[(\textsf{id}_A\circ f)(b)=\textsf{id}_A(f(b))=f(b)\]
  • For any $a\in A$, \[(g\circ \textsf{id}_A)(a)=g(\textsf{id}_A(a))=g(a)\]

Note: In $\mathsf{Set}$, there are generally many arrows from a particular set $S$ to itself (for example there are $4$ from $\{1,2\}$ to itself), but only one is the identity arrow.

Axiom 5: Associativity

Composition of arrows in $\mathsf{Set}$ is associative because function composition is associative. Suppose we have functions as in this diagram:

We must show that the two triangles containing $k$ in this diagram commute:

In algebraic notation, this requires showing that for every element $a\in A$,\[(h\circ(g\circ f))(a))=((h\circ g)\circ f)(a)\]

The calculation below does that. It makes repeated use of Definition (DC) of composition. For any $a\in A$,\[\begin{equation}
\big(h\circ (g\circ f)\big)(a)
& = h\big((g\circ f)(a)\big) \\
& = h\big(g(f(a))\big) \\
& = (h\circ g)(f(a)) \\
& = \big((h\circ g)\circ f\big)(a)

Example 4: The category of Monoids

  • This definition makes repeated use of the fact that a homomorphism of monoids is a set function. Specifically, if $(S,\Delta)$ and $(T,\nabla)$ are monoids with identities $e_S$ and $e_{T}$, a homomorphism $h:S\to T$ must be a set function that satisfies the following two axioms: \[\text{(ME)}\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,h(e_S)=e_T\] and for all elements $s, s’$ of $S$, \[\text{(MM)}\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,h(s\Delta s’)=h(s)\nabla h(s’)\]
  • The category of monoids may be denoted by $\mathsf{Mon}$.

Axiom 1: Data

  • Every monoid is an object of the category of monoids, and nothing else is.
  • If $f$ is a homomorphism of monoids, then $f$ is an arrow of the category of monoids, and nothing else is.

Axiom 2: Domain and codomain

If $(S,\Delta)$ and $(T,\nabla)$ are monoids and $f:(S,\Delta)\to(T,\nabla)$ is a homomorphism of monoids, then the domain of $f$ is $(S,\Delta)$ and the codomain of $f$ is $(T,\nabla)$.


  • Since $f$ takes elements of the set $S$ to elements of the set $T$, it is also an arrow in the category $\mathsf{Set}$. In general, very few functions from $S$ to $T$ will be monoid homomorphisms from $(S,\Delta)$ to $(T,\nabla)$.
  • Many authors do not distinguish between $f$ regarded as an arrow of $\mathsf{Mon}$ and $f$ regarded as an arrow of $\mathsf{Set}$. Others may write $U(f)$ for the arrow in $\mathsf{Set}$. “$U$” stands for “underlying functor“, also called “forgetful functor”.

Axiom 3: Composition

The composite of

is the composite $g\circ f$ as set functions:

It is necessary to check that $g\circ f$ is a monoid homomorphism. The following calculation shows that it preserves the monoid operation; it makes repeated use of equations (DC) and (MM).

The calculation: For elements $r$ and $r’$ of $R$,\[\begin{align*}
(g\circ f)(r\,{\scriptstyle \square}\, r’)
&=g\left(f(r\, {\scriptstyle \square}\, r’)\right)\,\,\,\,\,\text{(DC)}\\ &=g\left(f(r) {\scriptstyle\, \Delta}\, f(r’)\right)\,\,\,\,\,\text{(MM)}\\
&=g(f(r)){\scriptstyle \,\nabla}\, g(f(r’))\,\,\,\,\text{(MM)}\\
&=(g\circ f)(r){\scriptstyle \,\nabla}\,(g\circ f)(r’)\,\,\,\,\,\text{(DC)}

The fact that $g\circ f$ preserves the identity of the monoid is shown in the next section.

Axiom 4: Identity arrows

For a monoid $(S,\Delta)$, the identity function $\text{id}_S:S\to S$ preserves the monoid operation $\Delta$, because $\text{id}_S(s\Delta s’)=s\Delta s’$ by definition of the identity function, and that is $\text{id}_S(s)\Delta \text{id}_S(s’)$ for the same reason.

The required diagrams below must commute because the set functions commute and, by Axiom 3, the set composition of a monoid homomorphism is a monoid homomorphism.

We also need to show that $g\circ f$ as in

preserves identities. This calculation proves that it does; it uses (DC) and (ME)

(g\circ f)(\text{id}_R)

Axiom 5: Associativity

The diagram

in the category $\mathsf{Set}$ commutes, so the diagram

must also commute.


All these references are available on line.

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Introducing abstract topics

I have been busy for the past several years revising (abmath). Now I believe, perhaps foolishly, that most of the articles in abmath have reached beta, so now it is time for something new.

For some time I have been considering writing introductions to topics in abstract math, some typically studied by undergraduates and some taken by scientists and engineers. The topics I have in mind to do first include group theory and category theory.

The point of these introductions is to get the student started at the very beginning of the topic, when some students give up in total confusion. They meet and fall off of what I have called the abstraction cliff, which is discussed here and also in my blog posts Very early difficulties and Very early difficulties II.

I may have stolen the phrase “abstraction cliff” from someone else.

Group theory

Group theory sets several traps for beginning students.

Multiplication table

  • A student may balk when a small finite group is defined using a set of letters in a multiplication table.
    “But you didn’t say what the letters are or what the multiplication is?”
  • Such a definition is an abstract definition, in contrast to the definition of “prime”, for example, which is stated in terms of already known entities, namely the integers.
  • The multiplication table of a group tells you exactly what the binary operation is and any set with an operation that makes such a table correct is an example of the group being defined.
  • A student who has no understanding of abstraction is going to be totally lost in this situation. It is quite possible that the professor has never even mentioned the concept of abstract definition. The professor is probably like most successful mathematicians: when they were students, they understood abstraction without having to have it explained, and possibly without even noticing they did so.


  • Cosets are a real killer. Some students at this stage are nowhere near thinking of a set as an object or a thing. The concept of applying a binary operation on a pair of sets (or any other mathematical objects with internal structure) is completely foreign to them. Did anyone ever talk to them about mathematical objects?
  • The consequence of this early difficulty is that such a student will find it hard to understand what a quotient group is, and that is one of the major concepts you get early in a group theory course.
  • The conceptual problems with multiplication of cosets is similar to those with pointwise addition of functions. Given two functions $f,g:\mathbb{R}\to\mathbb{R}$, you define $f+g$ to be the function \[(f+g)(x):=f(x)+g(x)\] Along with pointwise multiplication, this makes the space of functions $\mathbb{R}\to\mathbb{R}$ a ring with nice properties.
  • But you have to understand that each element of the ring is a function thought of as a single math object. The values of the function are properties of the function, but they are not elements of the ring. (You can include the real numbers in the ring as constant functions, but don’t confuse me with facts.)
  • Similarly the elements of the quotient group are math objects called cosets. They are not elements of the original group. (To add to the confusion, they are also blocks of a congruence.)

Isomorphic groups

  • Many books, and many professors (including me) regard two isomorphic groups as the same. I remember getting anguished questions: “But the elements of $\mathbb{Z}_2$ are equivalence classes and the elements of the group of permutations of $\{1,2\}$ are functions.”
  • I admit that regarding two isomorphic groups as the same needs to be treated carefully when, unlike $\mathbb{Z}_2$, the group has a nontrivial automorphism group. ($\mathbb{Z}_3$ is “the same as itself” in two different ways.) But you don’t have to bring that up the first time you attack that subject, any more than you have to bring up the fact that the category of sets does not have a set of objects on the first day you define categories.

Category theory

Category theory causes similar troubles. Beginning college math majors don’t usually meet it early. But category theory has begun to be used in other fields, so plenty of computer science students, people dealing with databases, and so on are suddenly trying to understand categories and failing to do so at the very start.

The G&G post A new kind of introduction to category theory constitutes an alpha draft of the first part of an article introducing category theory following the ideas of this post.

Objects and arrows are abstract

  • Every once in a while someone asks a question on Math StackExchange that shows they have no idea that an object of a category need not have elements and that morphisms need not be functions that take elements to elements.
  • One questioner understood that the claim that a morphism need not be a function meant that it might be a multivalued function.


  • That misunderstanding comes up with duality. The definition of dual category requires turning the arrows around. Even if the original morphism takes elements to elements, the opposite morphism does not have to take elements to elements. In the case of the category of sets, an arrow in $\text{Set}^{op}$ cannot take elements to elements — for example, the opposite of the function $\emptyset\to\{1,2\}$.
  • The fact that there is a concrete category equivalent to $\text{Set}^{op}$ is a red herring. It involves different sets: the function corresponding to the function just mentioned goes from a four-element set to a singleton. But in the category $\text{Set}^{op}$ as defined it is simply an arrow, not a function.

Not understanding how to use definitions

  • Some of the questioners on Math Stack Exchange ask how to prove a statement that is quite simple to prove directly from the definitions of the terms involved, but what they ask and what they are obviously trying to do is to gain an intuition in order to understand why the statement is true. This is backward — the first thing you should do is use the definition (at least in the first few days of a math class — after that you have to use theorems as well!
  • I have discussed this in the blog post Insights into mathematical definitions (which gives references to other longer discussions by math ed people). See also the abmath section Rewrite according to the definitions.

How an introduction to a math topic needs to be written

The following list shows some of the tactics I am thinking of using in the math topic introductions. It is quite likely that I will conclude that some tactics won’t work, and I am sure that tactics I haven’t mentioned here will be used.

  • The introductions should not go very far into the subject. Instead, they should bring an exhaustive and explicit discussion of how to get into the very earliest part of the topic, perhaps the definition, some examples, and a few simple theorems. I doubt that a group theory student who hasn’t mastered abstraction and what proofs are about will ever be ready to learn the Sylow theorems.
  • You can’t do examples and definitions simultaneously, but you can come close by going through an example step by step, checking each part of the definition.
  • There is a real split between students who want the definitions first
    (most of whom don’t have the abstraction problems I am trying to overcome)
    and those who really really think they need examples first (the majority)
    because they don’t understand abstraction.

  • When you introduce an axiom, give an example of how you would prove that some binary operation satisfies the axiom. For example, if the axiom is that every element of a group must have an inverse, right then and there prove that addition on the integers satisfies the axiom and disprove that multiplication on integers satisies it.
  • When the definition uses some undefined math objects, point out immediately with examples that you can’t have any intuition about them except what the axioms give you. (In contrast to definition of division of integers, where you and the student already have intuitions about the objects.)
  • Make explicit the possible problems with and Gyre&Gimble) will indeed find it difficult to become mathematical researchers — but not impossible!
  • But that is not the point. All college math professors will get people who will go into theoretical computing science, and therefore need to understand category theory, or into particle physics, and need to understand groups, and so on.
  • By being clear at the earliest stages of how mathematicians actually do math, they will produce more people in other fields who actually have some grasp of what is going on with the topics they have studied in math classes, and hopefully will be willing to go back and learn some more math if some type of math rears its head in the theories of their field.
  • Besides, why do you want to alienate huge numbers of people from math, as our way of teaching in the past has done?
  • “Our” means grammar school teachers, high school teachers and college professors.


Thanks to Kevin Clift for corrections.

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Very early difficulties II

Very early difficulties II

This is the second part of a series of posts about certain difficulties math students have in the very early stages of studying abstract math. The first post, Very early difficulties in studying abstract math, gives some background to the subject and discusses one particular difficulty: Some students do not know that it is worthwhile to try starting a proof by rewriting what is to be proved using the definitions of the terms involved.

Math StackExchange

The website Math StackExchange is open to any questions about math, even very easy ones. It is in contrast with Math OverFlow, which is aimed at professional mathematicians asking questions in their own field.

Math SE contains many examples of the early difficulties discussed in this series of posts, and I recommend to math ed people (not just RUME people, since some abstract math occurs in advanced high school courses) that they might consider reading through questions on Math SE for examples of misunderstanding students have.

There are two caveats:

  • Most questions on Math SE are at a high enough level that they don’t really concern these early difficulties.
  • Many of the questions are so confused that it is hard to pinpoint what is causing the difficulty that the questioner has.

Connotations of English words

The terms(s) defined in a definition are often given ordinary English words as names, and the beginner automatically associates the connotations of the meaning of the English word with the objects defined in the definition.

Infinite cardinals

If $A$ if a finite set, the cardinality of $A$ is simply a natural number (including $0$). If $A$ is a proper subset of another set $B$, then the cardinality of $A$ is strictly less than the cardinality of $B$.

In the nineteenth century, mathematicians extended the definition of cardinality for infinite sets, and for the most part cardinality has the same behavior as for finite sets. For example, the cardinal numbers are well-ordered. However, for infinite sets it is possible for a set and a proper subset of the set to have the same cardinality. For example, the cardinality of the set of natural numbers is the same as the cardinality of the set of rational numbers. This phenomenon causes major cognitive dissonance.

Question 1331680 on Math Stack Exchange shows an example of this confusion. I have also discussed the problem with cardinality in the section Cardinality.

Morphism in category theory

The concept of category is defined by saying there is a bunch of objects called objects (sorry bout that) and a bunch of objects called morphisms, subject to certain axioms. One requirement is that there are functions from morphisms to objects choosing a “domain” and a “codomain” of each morphism. This is spelled out in Category Theory in Wikibooks, and in any other book on category theory.

The concepts of morphism, domain and codomain in a category are therefore defined by abstract definitions, which means that any property of morphisms and their domains and codomains that is true in every category must follow from the axioms. However, the word “morphism” and the talk about domains and codomains naturally suggests to many students that a morphism must be a function, so they immediately and incorrectly expect to evaluate it at an element of its domain, or to treat it as a function in other ways.


If $\mathcal{C}$ is a category, its opposite category $\mathcal{C}^{op}$ is defined this way:

  • The objects of $\mathcal{C}^{op}$ are the objects of $\mathcal{C}$.
  • A morphism $f:X\to Y$ of $\mathcal{C}^{op}$ is a morphism from $Y$ to $X$ of $\mathcal{C}$ (swap the domain and codomain).

In Question 980933 on Math SE, the questioner is saying (among other things) that in $\text{Set}^{op}$, this would imply that there has to be a morphism from a nonempty set to the empty set. This of course is true, but the questioner is worried that you can’t have a function from a nonempty set to the empty set. That is also true, but what it implies is that in $\text{Set}^{op}$, the morphism from $\{1,2,3\}$ to the empty set is not a function from $\{1,2,3\}$ to the empty set. The morphism exists, but it is not a function. This does not any any sense make the definition of $\text{Set}^{op}$ incorrect.

Student confusion like this tends to make the teacher want to have a one foot by six foot billboard in his classroom saying


However, even that statement causes confusion. The questioner who asked Question 1594658 essentially responded to the statement in purple prose above by assuming a morphism that is “not a function” must have two distinct values at some input!

That questioner is still allowing the connotations of the word “morphism” to lead them to assume something that the definition of category does not give: that the morphism can evaluate elements of the domain to give elements of the codomain.

So we need a more elaborate poster in the classroom:

The definition of “category” makes no requirement
that an object has elements
or that morphisms evaluate elements.

As was remarked long long ago, category theory is pointless.

English words implementing logic

There are lots of questions about logic that show that students really do not think that the definition of some particular logical construction can possibly be correct. That is why in the chapter on definitions I inserted this purple prose:

A definition is a totalitarian dictator.

It is often the case that you can explain why the definition is worded the way it is, and of course when you can you should. But it is also true that the student has to grovel and obey the definition no matter how weird they think it is.

Formula and term

In logic you learn that a formula is a statement with variables in it, for example “$\exists x((x+5)^3\gt2)$”. The expression “$(x+5)^3$” is not a formula because it is not a statement; it is a “term”. But in English, $H_2O$ is a formula, the formula for water. As a result, some students have a remarkably difficult time understanding the difference between “term” and “formula”. I think that is because those students don’t really believe that the definition must be taken seriously.

Exclusive or

Question 804250 in MathSE says:

“Consider $P$ and $Q$. Let $P+Q$ denote exclusive or. Then if $P$ and $Q$ are both true or are both false then $P+Q$ is false. If one of them is true and one of them is false then $P+Q$ is true. By exclusive or I mean $P$ or $Q$ but not both. I have been trying to figure out why the truth table is the way it is. For example if $P$ is true and $Q$ is true then no matter what would it be true?”

I believe that the questioner is really confused by the plus sign: $P+Q$ ought to be true if $P$ and $Q$ are both true because that’s what the plus sign ought to mean.

Yes, I know this is about a symbol instead of an English word, but I think the difficulty has the same dynamics as the English-word examples I have given.

If I have understood this difficulty correctly, it is similar to the students who want to know why $1$ is not a prime number. In that case, there is a good explanation.

Only if

The phrase “only if” simply does not mean the same thing in math as it does in English. In Question 17562 in MathSE, a reader asks the question, why does “$P$ only if $Q$” mean the same as “if $P$ then $Q$” instead of “if $Q$ then $P$”?

Many answerers wasted a lot of time trying to convince us that “$P$ only if $Q$” mean the same as “if $P$ then $Q$” in ordinary English, when in fact it does not. That’s because in English, clauses involving “if” usually connote causation, which does not happen in math English.

Consider these two pairs of examples.

  1. “I take my umbrella only if it is raining.”
  2. “If I take my umbrella, then it is raining.”
  3. “I flip that switch only if a light comes on.”
  4. “If I flip that switch, a light comes on.”

The average non-mathematical English speaker will easily believe that (1) and (4) are true, but will balk and (2) and (3). To me, (3) means that the light coming on makes me flip the switch. (2) is more problematical, but it does (to me) have a feeling of causation going the wrong way. It is this difference that causes students to balk at the equivalence in math of “$P$ only if $Q$” and “If $P$, then $Q$”. In math, there is no such thing as causation, and the truth tables for implication force us to live with the fact that these two sentences mean the same thing.

Henning Makholm’ answer to Question 17562 begins this way: “I don’t think there’s really anything to understand here. One simply has to learn as a fact that in mathematics jargon the words ‘only if’ invariably encode that particular meaning. It is not really forced by the everyday meanings of ‘only’ and’ if’ in isolation; it’s just how it is.” That is the best way to answer the question. (Other answerers besides Makholm said something similar.)

I have also discussed this difficulty (and other difficulties with logic) in the abmath section on “only if“.


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Mathematical Information II


This is the second post about Mathematical Information inspired by talks the AMS meeting in Seattle in January, 2016. The first post was Mathematical Information I. That post covered, among other things, types of explanations.

In this post as in the previous one, footnotes link to talks at Seattle that inspired me to write about a topic. The speakers may not agree with what I say.

The internet

Math sources on the internet

Publishing math on the internet

  • Publishing on the internet is instantaneous, in the sense that once it is written (which of course may take a long time), it can be made available on the internet immediately.
  • Publishing online is also cheap. It requires only a modest computer, an editor and LaTeX or MathJax, all of which are either free, one-time purchases, or available from your university. (These days all these items are required for publishing a math book on paper or submitting an article to a paper journal as well as for publishing on the internet.)
  • Publishing online has the advantage that taking up more space does not cost more. I believe this is widely underappreciated. You can add comments explaining how you think about some type of math object, or about false starts that you had to abandon, and so on. If you want to refer to a diagram that occurs in another place in the paper, you can simply include a copy in the current place. (It took me much too long to realize that I could do things like that in

Online journals

Many new online journals have appeared in the last few years. Some of them are deliberately intended as a way to avois putting papers behind a paywall. But aside from that, online journals speed up publication and reduce costs (not necessarily to zero if the journal is refereed).

A special type of online journal is the overlay journalG. A paper published there is posted on ArXiv; the journal merely links to it. This provides a way of refereeing articles that appear on ArXiv. It seems to me that such journals could include articles that already appear on ArXiv if the referees deem them suitable.

Types of mathematical communication

I wrote about some types of math communication in Mathematical Information I.

The paper Varieties of Mathematical Prose, by Atish Bagchi and me, describes other forms of communicating math not described here.

What mathematicians would like to know

Has this statement been proved?G

  • The internet has already made it easier to answer this query: Post it on MathOverflow or Math Stack Exchange.
  • It should be a long-term goal of the math community to construct a database of what is known. This would be a difficult, long-term project. I discussed it in my article The Mathematical Depository: A Proposal, which concentrated on how the depository should work as a system. Constructing it would require machine reading and understanding of mathematical prose, which is difficult and not something I know much about (the article gives some references).
  • An approach that would be completely different from the depository might be through a database of proved theorems that anyone could contribute to, like a wiki, but with editing to maintain consistency, avoid repetition, etc.

Known information about a conjecture

This information could include partial results.G An example would be Falting’s Theorem, which implies a partial result for Fermat’s Last Theorem: there is only a finite number of solutions of $x^n+y^n=z^n$ for integers $x, y, z, n$, $n\gt2$. That theorem became widely known, but many partial results never even get published.

Strategies for proofs

Strategies that are useful in a particular field.

The website Tricki is developing a list of such strategies.

It appears that Tricki should be referred to as “The Tricki”, like The Hague and The Bronx.

Note that there are strategies that essentially work just once, to prove some important theorem. For example, Craig’s Trick, to prove that a recursively enumerable theory is recursive. But of course, who can say that it will never be useful for some other theorem? I can’t think of how, though.

Strategies that don’t work, and whyG

The article How to discover for yourself the solution of the cubic, by Timothy Gowers, leads you down the garden path of trying to “complete the cubic” by copying the way you solve a quadratic, and then showing conclusively that that can’t possibly work.

Instructors should point out situations like that in class when they are relevant. A database of Methods That Work Here But Not There would be helpful, too. And, most important of all, if you run into a method that doesn’t work when you are trying to prove a theorem, when you do prove it, mention the failed method in your paper! (Remember: space is now free.)

Examples and Counterexample

I discovered these examples in twenty minutes on the internet.


“Mathematical discussion is very useful and virtually unpublishable.”G But in the internet age they can take place online, and they do, in discussion lists for particular branches of math. That is not the same thing as discussing in person, but it is still useful.


Polymath sessions are organized attempts to use a kind of crowdsourcing to study (and hopefully prove) a conjecture. The Polymath blog and the Polymath wiki provide information about ongoing efforts.


  • Videos that teach math are used all over the world now, after the spectacular success of Khan Academy.
  • Some math meetings produce videos of invited talks and make them available on You Tube. It would be wonderful if a systematic effort could be made to increase the number of such videos. I suppose part of the problem is that it requires an operator to operate the equipment. It is not impossible that filming an academic lecture could be automated, but I don’t know if anyone is doing this. It ought to be possible. After all, some computer games follow the motions of the player(s).
  • There are some documentaries explaining research-level math to the general public, but I don’t know much about them. Documentaries about other sciences seem much more common.


The talks in Seattle

  • List of all the talks.
  • W. Timothy Gowers, How should mathe­matical knowledge be organized? Talk at the AMS Special Session on Mathe­matical Information in the Digital Age of Science, 6 January 2016.
  • Mathematical discussions, links to pages by Timothy Gowers. “Often [these pages] contain ideas that I have come across in one way or another and wish I had been told as an undergraduate.”
  • Colloquium notes

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Around two years ago I began a systematic revision of This involved rewriting some of the articles completely, fixing many errors and bad links, and deleting some articles. It also involved changing over from using Word and MathType to writing directly in html and using MathJax. The changeover was very time consuming.

Before I started the revision, was in alpha mode, and now it is in beta. That means it still has flaws, and I will be repairing them probably till I can’t work any more, but it is essentially in a form that approximates my original intention for the website.

I do not intend to bring it out of beta into “final form”. I have written and published three books, two of them with Michael Barr, and I found the detailed work necessary to change it into its final form where it will stay frozen was difficult and took me away from things I want to do. I had to do it that way then (the olden days before the internet) but now I think websites that are constantly updated and have live links are far more useful to people who want to learn about some piece of math.

My last book, the Handbook of Mathematical Discourse, was in fact published after the internet was well under way, but I was still thinking in Olden Days Paper Mode and never clearly realized that there was a better way to do things.

In any case, the entire website (as well as Gyre&Gimble) is published under a Creative Commons license, so if someone wants to include part or all of it in another website, or in a book, and revise it while they do it, they can do so as long as they publish under the terms of the license and link to

Previous posts about the evolution of

Books by Michael Barr and Charles Wells

Toposes, triples and theories

Category theory for computing science

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Mathematical Information I


The January, 2016 meeting of the American Mathematical Society in Seattle included a special session on Mathe­matical Information in the Digital Age of Science. Here is a link to the list of talks in that session (you have to scroll down a ways to get to the list).

Several talks at that session were about communi­cating math, to other mathe­maticians and to the general public. Well, that’s what I have been about for the last 20 years. Mostly.


These posts discuss the ways we communi­cate math and (mostly in later posts) the revolution in math communication that the internet has caused. Parts of this discussion were inspired by the special session talks. When they are relevant, I include footnotes referring to the talks. Be warned that what I say about these ideas may not be the same as what the speakers had to say, but I feel I ought to give them credit for getting me to think about those concepts.

Some caveats

  • The distinctions between different kinds of math communi­cation are inevitably fuzzy.
  • Not all kinds of communication are mentioned.
  • Several types of communication normally occur in the same document.

Articles published in journals

Until recently, math journals were always published on paper. Now many journals exist only on the internet. What follows is a survey of the types of articles published in journals.

Refereed papers containing new results

These communications typically containing proofs of (usually new) theorems. Such papers are the main way that academic mathematicians get credit for their researchG for the purpose of getting tenure (at least in the USA), although some other types of credit are noted below.

Proofs published in refereed journals in the past were generally restricted to formal proofs, without very many comments intended to aid the reader’s under­standing. This restricted text was often enforced by the journal. In the olden days this would have been prompted by the expense of publishing on paper. I am not sure how much this restriction has relaxed in electronic journals.

I have been writing articles for and Gyre&Gimble for many years, and it has taken me a very long time to get over unnecessarily restricting the space I use in what I write. If I introduce a diagram in an article and then want to refer to it later, I don’t have to link to it — I can copy it into the current location. If it makes sense for an informative paragraph to occur in two different articles, I can put it into both articles. And so on. Nowadays, that sort of thing doesn’t cost anything.

Survey articles and invited addresses

You may also get credit for an invited address to a prestigious organi­zation, or for a survey of your field, in for example the Bulletin of the AMS. Invited addresses and surveys may contain considerably more explanatory asides. This was quite noticeable in the invited talks at the AMS Seattle meeting.


There is a whole spectrum of math books. The following list mentions some Fraunhofer lines on the spectrum, but the gamut really is as continuous as a large finite list of books could be. This list needs more examples. (This is a blog post, so it has the status of an alpha release.)

Research books that are concise and without much explanation.

The Bourbaki books that I have dipped into (mostly the algebra book and mostly in the 1970’s) are definitely concise and seem to strictly avoid explanation, diagrams, pictures, etc). I have heard people say they are unreadable, but I have not found them so.

Contain helpful explanations that will make sense to people in the field but probably would be formidable to someone in a substantially different area.

Toposes, triples and theories, by Michael Barr and Charles Wells. I am placing our book here in the spectrum because several non-category-theorists (some of them computer scientists) have remarked that it is “formidable” or other words like that.

Intended to introduce professional mathematicians to a particular field.

Categories for the working mathematician, by Saunders Mac Lane. I learned from this (the 1971 edition) in my early days as a category theorist, six years after getting my Ph.D. In fact, I think that this book belongs to the grad student level instead of here, but I have not heard any comments one way or another.

Intended to introduce math graduate students to a particular field.

There are lots of examples of good books in this area. Years ago (but well after I got my Ph.D.), I found Serge Lang’s Algebra quite useful and studied parts of it in detail.

But for grad students? It is still used for grad students, but perhaps Nathan Jacobson’s Basic Algebra would be a better choice for a first course in algebra for first-year grad students.

The post My early life as a mathematician discusses algebra texts in the olden days, among other things.

Intended to explain a part of math to a general audience.

Love and math: the heart of hidden reality. by Edward Frenkel, 2014. This is a wonderful book. After reading it, I felt that at last I had some clue as to what was going on with the Langlands Program. He assumes that the reader knows very little about math and gives hand-waving pictorial expla­nations for some of the ideas. Many of the concepts in the book were already familiar to me (not at an expert level). I doubt that someone who had had no college math courses that included some abstract math would get much out of it.

Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature, by Marcus du Sautoy, 2009. He also produced a video on symmetry.

My post Explaining “higher” math to beginners, describes du Sautoy’s use of terminology (among others).

Secrets of creation: the mystery of the prime numbers (Volume 1) by Matthew Watkins (author) and Matt Tweed (Illustrator), 2015. This is the first book of a trilogy that explains the connection between the Riemann $\zeta$ function and the primes. He uses pictures and verbal descriptions, very little terminology or symbolic notation. This is the best attempt I know of at explaining deep math that might really work for non-mathe­maticians.

My post The mystery of the prime numbers: a review describes the first book.

Piper Harron’s Thesis

The Equidistribution of Lattice Shapes of Rings of Integers of Cubic, Quartic, and Quintic Number Fields: an Artist’s Rendering, Ph.D. thesis by Piper Harron.

This is a remarkable departure from the usual dry, condensed, no-useful-asides Ph.D. thesis in math. Each chapter has three main parts, Layscape (explanations for nonspecialists — not (in my opinion) for nonmathe­maticians), Mathscape (most like what goes into the usual math paper but with much more explanation) and Weedscape (irrelevant stuff which she found helpful and perhaps the reader will too). The names of these three sections vary from chapter to chapter. This seems like a great idea, and the parts I have read are well-done.

These blog posts have useful comments about her thesis:

Types of explanations

Any explanation of math in any of the categories above will be of several different types. Some of them are considered here, and more will appear in Mathematical Information II.

The paper Varieties of Mathematical Prose, by Atish Bagchi and me, provides a more fine-grained description of certain types of math communication that includes some types of explanations and also other types of communication.

Images and metaphors


I have written about images and metaphors in is aimed at helping students who are beginning their study of abstract math, and so the examples are mostly simple and not at a high level of abstraction. In the general literature, the images and metaphors that are written about may be much more sophisticated.

The User’s GuideW

Luke Wolcott edits a new journal called Enchiridion: Mathematics User’s Guides (this link allows you to download the articles in the first issue). Each article in this journal is written by a mathematician who has published a research paper in a refereed journal. The author’s article in Enchiridion provides information intended to help the reader to understand the research paper. Enchiridion and its rationale is described in more detail in the paper The User’s Guide Project: Giving Experential Context to Research Papers.

The guidelines for writing a User’s Guide suggest writing them in four parts, and one of the parts is to introduce useful images and metaphors that helped the author. You can see how the authors’ user’s guides carry this out in the first issue of Enchiridion.

Piper Harron’s thesis

Piper Harron’s explanation of integrals in her thesis is a description of integrals and measures using creative metaphors that I think may raise some mathematicians’ consciousness and others’ hackles, but I doubt it would be informative to a non-mathematician. I love “funky-summing” (p. 116ff): it communicates how integration is related to real adding up a finite bunch of numbers in a liberal-artsy way, in other words via the connotations of the word “funky”, in contrast to rigorous math which depends on every word have an accumulation-of-properties definition.

The point about “funky-summing” (in my opinion, not necessarily Harron’s) is that when you take the limit of all the Riemann sums as all meshes go to zero, you get a number which

  • Is really and truly not a sum of numbers in any way
  • Smells like a sum of numbers

Connotations communicate metaphors. Metaphors are a major cause of grief for students beginning abstract math, but they are necessary for understanding math. Working around this paradox is probably the most important problem for math teachers.

Informal summaries of a proofW

The User’s Guide requires a “colloquial summary” of a paper as one of the four parts of the guide for that paper.

  • Wolcott’s colloquial summary of his paper keeps the level aimed at non-mathematicians, starting with a hand-waving explanation of what a ring is. He uses many metaphors in the process of explaining what his paper does.
  • The colloquial summary of another User’s Guide, by Cary Malkiewich, stays strictly at the general-public level. He uses a few metaphors. I liked his explanation of how mathematicians work first with examples, then finding patterns among the examples.
  • The colloquial summary of David White’s paper stays at the general-public level but uses some neat metaphors. He also has a perceptive paragraph discussing the role of category theory in math.

The summaries I just mentioned are interesting to read. But I wonder if informal summaries aimed at math majors or early grad students might be more useful.


The first of the four parts of the explanatory papers in Enchiridion is supposed to present the key insights and organizing principles that were useful in coming up with the proofs. Some of them do a good job with this. They are mostly very special to the work in question, but some are more general.

This suggests that when teaching a course in some math subject you make a point of explaining the basic techniques that have turned out very useful in the subject.

For example, a fundamental insight in group theory is:

Study the linear representations of a group.

That is an excellent example of a fundamental insight that applies everywhere in math:

Find a functor that maps the math objects you are studying to objects in a different branch of math.

The organizing principles listed in David White’s article has (naturally more specialized) insights like that.

Proof stories

“Proof stories” tell in sequence (more or less) how the author came up with a proof. This means describing the false starts, insights and how they came about. Piper Harron’s thesis does that all through her work.

Some authors do more than that: their proof stories intertwine the mathe­matical events of their progress with a recount of life events, which sometimes make a mathe­matical difference and sometimes just produces a pause to let the proof stew in their brain. Luke Wolcott wrote a User’s Guide for one of his own papers, and his proof story for that paper involves personal experiences. (I recommend his User’s Guide as a model to learn from.)

Reports of personal experiences in doing math seem to add to my grasp of the math, but I am not sure I understand why.


The talks in Seattle

  • List of all the talks.
  • W. Timothy Gowers, How should mathe­matical knowledge be organized? Talk at the AMS Special Session on Mathe­matical Information in the Digital Age of Science, 6 January 2016.
  • Colloquium notes. Gowers gave a series of invited addresses for which these are the notes. They have many instances of describing what sorts of problems obstruct a desirable step in the proof and what can be done about it.

  • Luke Wolcott, The User’s Guide. Talk at the AMS Special Session on Mathe­matical Information in the Digital Age of Science, 6 January 2016.

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