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.
- 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 abstractmath.org 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.
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
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:
- Michael Harris, Piper Harron smashes phallogocentrism.
- Evelyn Lamb, Contrasts in Number Theory.
- Cathy O’Neil, Piper Harron’s description of 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 abstractmath.org:
Abstractmath.org 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” 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.
- Link to the journal: Enchiridion: Mathematics User’s Guides
- An article describing the User’s Guide: The User’s Guide Project: Giving Experential Context to Research Papers.
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