Tag Archives: metaphor

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 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.

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

In abstractmath.org

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

“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.

Creative Commons License< ![endif]>

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Send to Kindle

The real numbers

My website abstractmath.org contains separate short articles about certain number systems (natural numbers, integers, rationals, reals). The intent of each article is to discuss problems that students have when they begin studying abstract math. The articles do not give complete coverage of each system. They contain links when concepts are mentioned that the reader might not be familiar with.

This post is a revision of the abstractmath.org article on the real numbers. The other articles have also been recently revised.


A real number is a number that can be represented as a (possibly infinite) decimal expansion, such as 2.56, -3 (which is -3.0), 1/3 (which has the infinite decimal expansion 0.333…), and $\pi$. Every integer and every rational number is a real number, but numbers such as $\sqrt{2}$ and $\pi$ are real numbers that are not rational.

  • I will not give a mathematical definition of “real number”.  There are several equivalent definitions of real number all of which are quite complicated.   Mathematicians rarely think about real numbers in terms of these definitions; what they have in mind when they work with them are their familiar algebraic and topological properties.
  • “Real number” is a technical term.  Real numbers are not any more “genuine” that any other numbers.
  • Integers and rational numbers are real numbers, but there are real numbers that are not integers or rationals. One such number is$\sqrt{2}$. Such numbers are called irrational numbers.

Properties of the real numbers


The real numbers are closed under addition, subtraction, and multiplication, as well as division by a nonzero number.

Notice that these are exactly the same arithmetic closure properties that rational numbers have. In the previous sections in this chapter on numbers, each new number system — natural numbers, integers and rational numbers — were closed under more arithmetic operations than the earlier ones. We don’t appear to have gained anything concerning arithmetic operations in going from the rationals to the reals.

The real numbers do allow you to find zeroes of some polynomials that don’t have rational zeroes. For example, the equation $x^2-2=0$ has the root $x=\sqrt{2}$, which is a real number but not a rational number. However, you get only some zeroes of polynomials by going to the reals — consider the equation $x^2+2=0$, which requires going to the complex numbers to get a root.

Closed under limits

The real numbers are closed under another operation (not an algebraic operation) that rational numbers are not closed under:

The real numbers are closed under taking limits.
That fact is the primary reason real numbers are so important
in math, science and engineering.

Consider: The concepts of continuous function, derivative and integral — the basic ideas in calculus and differential equations — are all defined in terms of limits. Those are the basic building blocks of mathematical analysis, which provides most of the mathematical tools used by scientists and engineers.

Some images and metaphors for real numbers

Line segments

The length of any line segment is given by a positive real number.



The diagonal of the square above has length $2\sqrt{2}$.

Directed line segments

Measuring directed line segments requires the use of negative real numbers as well as positive ones. You can regard the diagonal above as a directed line segment. If you regard “left to right” as the positive direction (which is what we usually do), then if you measure it from right to left you get $-2\sqrt{2}$.

Real numbers are quantities

Real numbers are used to measure continuous variable quantities.

  • The temperature at a given place and a given time.
  • The speed of a moving car.
  • The amount of water in a particular jar.


  • Temperature, speed, volume of water are thought of as quantities that can change, or be changed, which is why I called them “variable” quantities.
  • The name “continuous” for these quantities indicates that the quantity can change from one value to another without “jumping”. (This is a metaphor, not a mathematical definition!)

If you have $1.334 \text{ cm}^3$ of water in a jar you can add any additional small amount into it or you can withdraw any small amount from it.  The volume does not suddenly jump from $1.334$ to $1.335$ – as you put in the water it goes up gradually from $1.334$ to $1.335$.


This explanation of “continuous quantity” is done in terms of how we think about continuous quantities, not in terms of a mathematical definition.  In fact. since you can’t measure an amount smaller than one molecule of water, the volume does jump up in tiny discrete amounts.   Because of quantum phenomena, temperature and speed change in tiny jumps, too (much tinier than molecules). 

Quantum jumps and individual molecules are ignored in large-scale physical applications because the scale at which they occur is so tiny it doesn’t matter.  For such applications, physicists and chemists (and cooks and traffic policemen!) think of the quantities they are measuring as continuous, even though at tiny scales they are not.

The fact that scientists and engineers treat changes of physical quantities as continuous, ignoring the fact that they are not continuous at tiny scales, is sometimes called the “continuum hypothesis”. This is not what mathematicians mean by that phrase: see continuum hypothesis in Wikipedia.

The real line

It is useful to visualize the set of real numbers as the real line.

The real line goes off to infinity in both directions. Each real number represents a location on the real line. Some locations are shown here:

The locations are commonly called points on the real line.  This can lead to a seriously mistaken mental image of the reals as a row of points, like beads.  Just as in the case of the rationals, there is no real number “just to the right” of a given real number. 

Decimal representation of the real numbers

In this section, I will go into more detail about the decimal representation of the real numbers. There are two reasons for doing this.

  • People just beginning abstract math tend to think in terms of bad metaphors about the real numbers as decimals, and I want to introduce ways of thinking about them that are more helpful.
  • The real numbers can be defined in terms of the decimal representation. This is spelled out in a blog post by Tim Gowers. The definition requires some detail and in some ways is inelegant compared to the definitions usually used in analysis textbooks. But it means that the more you understand about the decimal representation, the better you understand real numbers, and in a pretty direct way.

The decimal representation of a real number is also called its decimal expansion.  A representation can be given to other bases besides $10$; more about that here.

Decimal representation as directed length.

The decimal representation of a real number gives the approximate location of the number on the real line as its directed distance from $0$.

  • The rational number $1/2$ is real and has the decimal representation $0.5$.
  • The rational number $-1/2$ has the representation $-0.5$.
  • The number $1/3$ is also real and has the infinite decimal representation $1.333\ldots$. Thereis an infinite number of $3$’s, or to put it another way, for every
    positive integer $n$, the $n$th decimal place of the decimal representation of $1/3$ is $3$.
  • The number $\pi $ has a decimal representation beginning $3.14159\ldots$. So you can locate $\pi$ approximately by going $3.14$ units to the right from $0$.  You can locate it more exactly by going $3.14159$ units to the right, if you can measure that accurately.  The decimal representation of $\pi$ is infinitely long so you can theoretically represent it with as much accuracy as you wish.  In practice, of course, it would take longer than the age of the universe to find the first ${{10}^{({{10}^{10}})}}$ digits.

Bar notation

It is customary to put a bar over a sequence of digits at the end of a decimal representation to indicate that the sequence is repeated forever. 

  • $42\frac{1}{3}=42.\overline{3}$
  • $52.71656565\ldots$ (the group $65$ repeating infinitely often) may be written $52.71\overline{65}$.
  • A decimal representation that is only finitely long, for example $5.477$, could also be written $5.477\overline{0}$.
  • In particular, $6=6.0=6.\overline{0}$, and that works for any integer.


If you give the first few decimal places of a real number, you are giving an approximation to it.  Mathematicians on the one hand and scientists and engineers on the other tend to treat expressions such as $3.14159$ in two different ways:

  • The mathematician may think of it as a precisely given number, namely $\frac{314159}{100000}$, so in particular it represents a rational number. This number is not $\pi$, although it is close to it.
  • The scientistor engineer will probably treat it as the known part of the decimal representation of a real number. From their point of view, one knows $3.14159$ to six significant figures.
  • Abstractmath.org always takes the mathematician’s point of view.  If I refer to $3.14159$, I mean the rational number $\frac{314159}{100000}$.  I may also refer to $\pi$ as “approximately $3.15159$”.

Integers and reals in computer languages

Computer languages typically treat integers as if they were distinct from real numbers. In particular, many languages have the convention that the expression ‘$2$’ denotes the integer and the expression ‘$2.0$’ denotes the real number.   Mathematicians do not use this convention.  They usually regard the integer $2$ and the real number $2.0$ as the same mathematical object.

Decimal representation and infinite series

The decimal representation of a real number is shorthand for a particular infinite series.  Suppose the part before the decimal place is the integer $n$ and the part after the decimal place is\[{{d}_{1}}{{d}_{2}}{{d}_{3}}…\]where ${{d}_{i}}$ is the digit in the $i$th place.  (For example, for $\pi$, $n=3$, ${{d}_{1}}=1,\,\,\,{{d}_{2}}=4,\,\,\,{{d}_{3}}=1,$ and so forth.)  Then the decimal notation $n.{{d}_{1}}{{d}_{2}}{{d}_{3}}…$ represents the limit of the infinite series\[n+\sum\limits_{i=1}^{\infty }{\frac{{{d}_{i}}}{{{10}^{i}}}}\]



The number $42\frac{1}{3}$ is exactly equal to the sum of the infinite series, which is represented by the expression $42.\overline{3}$.

If you stop the series after a finite number of terms, then the number is approximately equal to the resulting sum. For example, $42\frac{1}{3}$ is approximately equal to\[42+\frac{3}{10}+\frac{3}{100}+\frac{3}{1000}\]which is the same as $42.333$.

This inequality gives an estimate of the accuracy of this approximation:\[42.333\lt42\frac{1}{3}\lt42.334\]

How to think about infinite decimal representations

The expression $42.\overline{3}$ must be thought of as including all the $3$’s all at once rather than as gradually extending to the right over an infinite period of time.

In ordinary English, the “…” often indicates continuing through time, as in this example

“They climbed to the top of the ridge, and saw another, higher ridge in the distance, so they walked to that ridge and climbed it, only to see another one still further away…”

But the situation with decimal representations is different:

The decimal representation of $42\frac{1}{3}$ as $42.333\ldots$must be thought of as a complete, infinitely long sequence of decimal digits, every one of which (after the decimal point) is a “$3$” right now.

In the same way, you need to think of the decimal expansion of $\sqrt{2}$ as having all its decimal digits in place at once. Of course, in this case you have to calculate them in order. And note that calculating them is only finding out what they are. They are already there!

The preceding description is about how a mathematican thinks about infinite decimal expansions.  The thinking has some sort of physical representation in your head that allows you to think about to the hundred millionth decimal place of $\sqrt{2}$ or of $\pi$ even if you don’t know what it is. This does not mean that you have an infinite number of slots in your brain, one for each decimal place!  Nor does it mean that the infinite number of decimal places actually exist “somewhere”.  After all, you can think about unicorns and they don’t actually exist somewhere.

Exact definitions

Both the following statements are true:

  • The numbers $1/3$, $\sqrt{2}$and $\pi $ have infinitely long decimal representations, in contrast for example to $\frac{1}{2}$, whose decimal representation is exactly $0.5$.
  • The expressions “$1/3$”, “$\sqrt{2}$” and “$\pi $” exactly determine the numbers $1/3$, $\sqrt{2}$ and $\pi$:

These two statements don’t contradict each other. All three numbers have exact definitions.

  • $1/3$ is exactly the number that gives 1 when multiplied by $3$.
  • $\sqrt{2}$is exactly the unique positive real number whose square is 2.
  • $\pi $ is exactly the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its

The decimal representation of each one to a finite number of places provides an approximate location of that number on the real line On the other hand, the complete decimal representation of each one represents it exactly, although you can’t write it down.

Different decimal representations for the same number

The decimal representations of two different real numbers must be different. However, two different decimal representations can, in certain circumstances, represent the same real number. This happens when the decimal representation ends in an infinite sequence of $9$’s or an infinite sequence of $0$’s.


  • $0.\overline{9}=1.\overline{0}$. This means that $0.\overline{9}$ is exactly the same number as $1$. It is not just an approximation of $1$
  • $3.4\bar{9}=3.5\overline{0}$. Indeed, $3.4\overline{9}$, $3.5$, $35/10$, and $7/2$ are all different representations of the same number. 

The Wikipedia article “$0.\overline{9}$” is an elaborate discussion of the fact that $0.\overline{9}=1$, a fact that many students find hard to believe.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Send to Kindle

Math majors attacked by cognitive dissonance

In some situations you may have conflicting information from different sources about a subject.   The resulting confusion in your thinking is called cognitive dissonance.

It may happen that a person suffering cognitive dissonance suppresses one of the ways of understanding in order to resolve the conflict.  For example, at a certain stage in learning English, you (small child or non-native-English speaker) may learn a rule that the past tense is made from the present form by adding “-ed”. So you say “bringed” instead of “brought” even though you may have heard people use “brought” many times.  You have suppressed the evidence in favor of the rule.

Some of the ways cognitive dissonance can affect learning math are discussed here

Metaphorical contamination

We think about math objects using metaphors, as we do with most concepts that are not totally concrete.  The metaphors are imperfect, suggesting facts about the objects that may not follow from the definition. This is discussed at length in the section on images and metaphors here.

The real line

Mathematicians think of the real numbers as constituting a line infinitely long in both directions, with each number as a point on the line. But this does not mean that you can think of the line as a row of points. Between any two points there are uncountably many other points. See density of the reals.

Infinite math objects

One of the most intransigent examples of metaphorical contamination occurs when students think about countably infinite sets. Their metaphor is that a sequence such as the set of natural numbers $\{0,1,2,3,4,\ldots\}$ “goes on forever but never ends”. The metaphor mathematicians have in mind is quite different: The natural numbers constitute the set that contains every natural number right now.


An excruciating example of this is the true statement
$.999\ldots=1.0$.” The notion that it can’t be true comes from thinking of “$0.999\ldots$” as consisting of the list of numbers \[0.9,0.99,0.999,0.9999,0.99999,\ldots\] which the student may say “gets closer and closer to $1.0$ but never gets there”.

Now consider the way a mathematician thinks: The numbers are all already there, and they make a set.

The proof that $.999\ldots=1.0$ has several steps. In the list below, I have inserted some remarks in red that indicate areas of abstract math that beginning students have trouble with.

  1. The elements of an infinite set are all in it at once. This is the way mathematicians think about infinite sets.
  2. By definition, an infinite decimal expansion represents the unique real number that is a limit point of its set of truncations.
  3. The problem that occurs with the word “definition” in this case is that a definition appears to be a dictatorial act. The student needs to know why you made this definition. This is not a stupid request. The act can be justified by the way the definition gets along with the algebraic and topological characteristic of the real numbers.

  4. It follows from $\epsilon-\delta$ machinations that the limit of the sequence $0.9,0.99,0.999,0.9999,0.99999,\ldots$ is $1.0$
  5. That means “$0.999\ldots$” represents $1.0$. (Enclosing a mathematical expression in quotes turns it into a string of characters.)
  6. The statement “$A$” represents $B$ is equivalent to the statement $A=B$. (Have you ever heard a teacher point this out?)
  7. It follows that that $0.999\ldots=1.0$.

Each one of these steps should be made explicit. Even the Wikipedia article, which is regarded as a well written document, doesn’t make all of the points explicit.

Semantic contamination

Many math objects have names that are ordinary English words. 
(See names.) So the person learning about them is faced with two inputs:

  • The definition of the word as a math object.
  • The meaning and connotations of the word in English.

It is easy and natural to suppress the information given by the definition (or part of it) and rely only on the English meaning. But math does not work that way:

If another source of understanding contradicts the definition


The connotations of a name may fit the concept in some ways and not others. Infinite cardinal numbers are a notorious example of this: there are some ways in which they are like numbers and other in which they are not. 

For a finite set, the cardinality of the set is the number of elements in the set. Long ago, mathematicians started talking about the cardinality of an infinite set. They worked out a lot of facts about that, for example:

  • The cardinality of the set of natural numbers is the same as the cardinality of the set of rational numbers.
  • The cardinality of the number of points on the real line is the same as the cardinality of points in the real plane.

The teacher may even say that there are just as many points on the real line as in the real points. And know-it-all math majors will say that to their friends.

Many students will find that totally bizarre. Essentially, what has happened is that the math dictators have taken the phrase “cardinality” to mean what it usually means for finite sets and extend it to infinite sets by using a perfectly consistent (and useful) definition of “cardinality” which has very different properties from the finite case.

That causes a perfect storm of cognitive dissonance.

Math majors must learn to get used to situations like this; they occur in all branches of math. But it is bad behavior to use the phrase “the same number of elements” to non-mathematicians. Indeed, I don’t think you should use the word cardinality in that setting either: you should refer to a “one-to-one correspondence” instead and admit up front that the existence of such a correspondence is quite amazing.


Let’s look at the word “series”in more detail. In ordinary English, a series is a bunch of things, one after the other.

  • The World Series is a series of up to seven games, coming one after another in time.
  • A series of books is not just a bunch of books, but a bunch of books in order.
  • In the case of the Harry Potter series the books are meant to be read in order.
  • A publisher might publish a series of books on science, named Physics, Chemistry,
    Astronomy, Biology,
    and so on, that are not meant to be read in order, but the publisher will still list them in order.(What else could they do? See Representing and thinking about sets.)

Infinite series in math

In mathematics an infinite series is an object expressed like this:


where the ${{a}_{k}}$ are numbers. It has partial sums


For example, if ${{a}_{k}}$ is defined to be $1/{{k}^{2}}$ for positive integers $k$, then

about }1.49\]

This infinite series converges to $\zeta (2)$, which is about $1.65$. (This is not obvious. See the Zeta-function article in Wikipedia.) So this “infinite series” is really an infinite sum. It does not fit the image given by the English word “series”. The English meaning contaminates the mathematical meaning. But the definition wins.

The mathematical word that corresponds to the usual meaning of “series” is “sequence”. For example, $a_k:=1/{{k}^{2}}$ is the infinite sequence $1,\frac{1}{4},\frac{1}{9},\frac{1}{16}\ldots$ It is not an infinite series.

“Only if”

“Only if” is also discussed from a more technical point of view in the article on conditional assertions.

In math English, sentences of the form $P$ only if $Q$” mean exactly the same thing as “If $P$ then $Q$”. The phrase “only if” is rarely used this way in ordinary English discourse.

Sentences of the form “$P$ only if $Q$” about ordinary everyday things generally do not mean the same thing as “If $P$ then $Q$”. That is because in such situations there are considerations of time and causation that do not come up with mathematical objects. Consider “If it is raining, I will carry an umbrella” (seeing the rain will cause me to carry the umbrella) and “It is raining only if I carry an umbrella” (which sounds like my carrying an umbrella will cause it to rain).   When “$P$ only if $Q$” is about math objects,
there is no question of time and causation because math objects are inert and unchanging.

 Students sometimes flatly refuse to believe me when I tell them about the mathematical meaning of “only if”.  This is a classic example of semantic contamination.  Two sources of information appear to contradict each other, in this case (1) the professor and (2) a lifetime of intimate experience with the English language.  The information from one of these sources must be rejected or suppressed. It is hardly surprising that many students prefer to suppress the professor’s apparently unnatural and usually unmotivated claims.

These words also cause severe cognitive dissonance

  • “If” causes notorious difficulties for beginners and even later. They are discussed in abmath here and here.
  • A, an
    and the implicitly signal the universal quantifier in certain math usages. They cause a good bit of trouble in the early days of some students.

The following cause more minor cognitive dissonance.

References for semantic contamination

Besides the examples given above, you can find many others in these two works:

  • Pimm, D. (1987), Speaking Mathematically: Communications in Mathematics Classrooms.  Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Hersh, R. (1997),”Math lingo vs. plain English: Double entendre”. American Mathematical Monthly, vol 104,pages 48-51.
Send to Kindle

Images and metaphors in math

About this post

This post is the new revision of the chapter on Images and Metaphors in abstractmath.org.

Images and metaphors in math

In this chapter, I say something about mental represen­tations (metaphors and images) in general, and provide examples of how metaphors and images help us understand math – and how they can confuse us.

Pay special attention to the section called two levels!  The distinction made there is vital but is often not made explicit.

Besides mental represen­tations, there are other kinds of represen­tations used in math, discussed in the chapter on represen­tations and models.

Mathe­matics is the tinkertoy of metaphor. –Ellis D. Cooper

Images and metaphors in general

We think and talk about our experiences of the world in terms of images and metaphors that are ultimately derived from immediate physical experience.  They are mental represen­tations of our experiences.

See Thinking about thought.



We know what a pyramid looks like.  But when we refer to the government’s food pyramid we are not talking about actual food piled up to make a pyramid.  We are talking about a visual image of the pyramid.    


We know by direct physical experience what it means to be warm or cold.  We use these words as metaphors
in many ways: 

  • We refer to a person as having a warm or cold personality.  This has nothing to do with their body temperature.
  • When someone is on a treasure hunt we may tell them they are “getting warm”, even if they are hunting outside in the snow.

Children don’t always sort meta­phors out correctly. Father: “We are all going to fly to Saint Paul to see your cousin Petunia.” Child: “But Dad, I don’t know how to fly!”

Other terminology

  • My use of the word “image” means mental image. In the study of literature, the word “image” is used in a more general way, to refer to an expression that evokes a mental image..
  • I use “metaphor” in the sense of conceptual metaphor. The word metaphor in literary studies is related to my use but is defined in terms of how it is expressed.
  • The metaphors mentioned above involving “warm” and “cold”
    evoke a sensory experience, and so could be called an image as well. 
  • In math education, the phrase concept image means the mental structure associated with a concept, so there may be no direct connection with sensory experience.  
  • In abstractmath.org, I use the phrase metaphors and images to talk about all our mental represen­tations, without trying for fine distinctions.

Mental represen­tations are imperfect

One basic fact about metaphors and images is that they apply only to certain aspects of the situation.

  • When someone is getting physically warm we would expect them to start sweating.
  • But if they are getting warm in a treasure hunt we don’t expect them to start sweating. 
  • We don’t expect the food pyramid to have a pharaoh buried underneath it, either.

Our brains handle these aspects of mental represen­tations easily and usually without our being conscious of them.  They are one of the primary ways we understand the world.

Images and metaphors in math

Half this game is 90% mental. –Yogi Berra

Types of represen­tations

Mathe­maticians who work with a particular kind of mathe­matical object
have mental represen­tations of that type of object that help them
understand it.  These mental represen­tations come in many forms.  Most of them fit into one of the types below, but the list shouldn’t be taken too seriously: Some represen­tations fit more that of these types, and some may not fit into any of them except awkwardly.

  • Visual
  • Notation
  • Kinetic
  • Process
  • Object

All mental represen­tations are conceptual metaphors. Metaphors are treated in detail in this chapter and in the chapter on images and metaphors for functions.  See also literalism and Proofs without dry bones on Gyre&Gimble.

Below I list some examples. Many of them refer to the arch function, the function defined by $h(t)=25-{{(t-5)}^{2}}$.

Visual image

Geometric figures

The arch function

  • You can picture the arch function in terms of its graph, which is a parabola.     This visualization suggests that the function has a single maximum point that appears to occur at $t=5$. That is an example of how metaphors can suggest (but not prove) theorems.
  • You can think of the arch function
    more physically, as like the Gateway Arch. This metaphor is suggested by the graph.

Interior of a shape

  • The interior of a closed curve or a sphere is called that because it is like the interior in the everyday sense of a bucket or a house.
  • Sometimes, the interior can be described using analytic geometry. For example, the interior of the circle $x^2+y^2=1$ is the set of points \[\{(x,y)|x^2+y^2\lt1\}\]
  • But the “interior” metaphor is imperfect: The boundary of a real-life container such as a bucket has thickness, in contrast to the boundary of a closed curve or a sphere. 
  • This observation illustrates my description of a metaphor as identifying part of one situation with part of another. One aspect is emphasized; another aspect, where they may differ, is ignored.

Real number line

  • You may think of the real
    as lying along a straight line (the real line) that extends infinitely far in both directions.  This is both visual and a metaphor (a real number “is” a place on the real line).
  • This metaphor is imperfect because you can’t draw the whole real line, but only part of it. But you can’t draw the whole graph of the curve $y=25-(t-5)^2$, either.

Continuous functions

No gaps

“Continuous functions don’t have gaps in the graph”.    This is a visual image, and it is usually OK.

  • But consider the curve defined by $y=25-(t-5)^2$ for every real $x$ except $x=1$. It is not defined at $x=1$ (and so the function is discontinuous there) but its graph looks exactly like the graph in the figure above because no matter how much you magnify it you can’t see the gap.
  • This is a typi­cal math example that teachers make up to raise your consciousness.

  • So is there a gap or not?
No lifting

“Continuous functions can be drawn without lifting the chalk.” This is true in most familiar cases (provided you draw the graph only on a finite interval). But consider the graph of the function defined by $f(0)=0$ and \[f(t)=t\sin\frac{1}{t}\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ (0\lt t\lt 0.16)\]
(see Split Definition). This curve is continuous and is infinitely long even though it is defined on a finite interval, so you can’t draw it with a chalk at all, picking up the chalk or not. Note that it has no gaps.

Keeping concepts separate by using mental “space”

I personally use visual images to remember relationships between abstract objects, as well.  For example, if I think of three groups, two of which are isomorphic (for example $\mathbb{Z}_{3}$ and $\text{Alt}_3$), I picture them as in three different places in my head with a connection between the two isomorphic ones.


Here I give some examples of thinking of math objects in terms of the notation used to name them. There is much more about notation as mathe­matical represen­tation in these sections of abmath:

Notation is both something you visualize in your head and also a physical represen­tation of the object.  In fact notation can also be thought of as a mathe­matical object in itself (common in mathe­matical logic and in theoretical computing science.)   If you think about what notation “really is” a lot,  you can easily get a headache…


  • When I think of the square root of $2$, I visualize the symbol “$\sqrt{2}$”. That is both a typographical object and a mathe­matically defined symbolic represen­tation of the square root of $2$.
  • Another symbolic represen­tation of the square root of $2$ is “$2^{1/2}$”. I personally don’t visualize that when I think of the square root of $2$, but there is nothing wrong with visualizing it that way.
  • What is dangerous is thinking that the square root of $2$ is the symbol “$\sqrt{2}$” (or “$2^{1/2}$” for that matter). The square root of $2$ is an abstract mathe­matical object given by a precise mathe­matical definition.
  • One precise defi­nition of the square root of $2$ is “the positive real number $x$ for which $x^2=2$”. Another definition is that $\sqrt{2}=\frac{1}{2}\log2$.


  • If I mention the number “two thousand, six hundred forty six” you may visualize it as “$2646$”. That is its decimal represen­tation.
  • But $2646$ also has a prime factorization, namely $2\times3^3\times7^2$.
  • It is wrong to think of this number as being the notation “$2646$”. Different notations have different values, and there is no mathe­matical reason to make “$2646$” the “genuine” represen­tation. See represen­tations and Models.
  • For example, the prime factor­ization of $2646$ tells you imme­diately that it is divisible by $49$.

When I was in high school in the 1950’s, I was taught that it was incorrect to say “two thousand, six hundred and forty six”. Being naturally rebellious I used that extra “and” in the early 1960’s in dictating some number in a telegraph mes­sage. The Western Union operator corrected me. Of course, the “and” added to the cost. (In case you are wondering, I was in the middle of a postal Diplomacy game in Graustark.)


Set notation

You can think of the set containing $1$, $3$ and $5$ and nothing else as represented by its common list notation $\{1, 3, 5\}$.  But remember that $\{5, 1,3\}$ is another notation for the same set. In other words the list notation has irrelevant features – the order in which the elements are listed in this case.


Shoot a ball straight up

  • The arch function could model the height over time of a physical object, perhaps a ball shot vertically upwards on a planet with no atmosphere.
  • The ball starts upward at time $t=0$ at elevation $0$, reaches an elevation of (for example) $16$ units at time $t=2$, and lands at $t=10$.
  • The parabola is not the path of the ball. The ball goes up and down along the $x$-axis. A point on the parabola shows it locaion on the $x$ axis at time $t$.
  • When you think about this event, you may imagine a physical event continuing over time, not just as a picture but as a feeling of going up and down.
  • This feeling of the ball going up and down is created in your mind presumably using mirror neuron. It is connected in your mind by a physical connection to the understanding of the function that has been created as connections among some of your neurons.
  • Although $h(t)$ models the height of the ball, it is not the same thing as the height of the ball.  A mathe­matical object may have a relationship in our mind to physical processes or situations, but it is distinct from them.


  1. This example involves a picture (graph of a function).  According to this report, kinetic
    understanding can also help with learning math that does not involve pictures. 
    For example, when I think of evaluating the function ${{x}^{2}}+1$ at 3, I visualize
    3 moving into the x slot and then the formula $9^2+1$ transforming
    itself into $10$. (Not all mathematicians visualize it this way.)
  2. I make the point of emphasizing the physical existence in your brain of kinetic feelings (and all other metaphors and images) to make it clear that this whole section on images and metaphors is about objects that have a physical existence; they are not abstract ideals in some imaginary ideal space not in our world. See Thinking about thought.

I remember visualizing algebra I this way even before I had ever heard of the Transformers.


It is common to think of a function as a process: you put in a number (or other object) and the process produces another number or other object. There are examples in Images and metaphors for functions.

Long division

Let’s divide $66$ by $7$ using long division. The process consists of writing down the decimal places one by one.

  1. You guess at or count on your fingers to find the largest integer $n$ for which $7n\lt66$. That integer is $9$.
  2. Write down $9.$ ($9$ followed by a decimal point).
  3. $66-9\times7=3$, so find the largest integer $n$ for which $7n\lt3\times10$, which is $4$.
  4. Adjoin $4$ to your answer, getting $9.4$
  5. $3\times10-7\times4=2$, so find the largest integer $n$ for which $7n\lt2\times10$, which is $2$.
  6. Adjoin $2$ to your answer, getting $9.42$.
  7. $2\times10-7\times2=6$, so find the largest integer for which $7n\lt6\times10$, which is $8$.
  8. Adjoin $8$ to your answer, getting $9.428$.
  9. $6\times10-7\times8=4$, so find the largest integer for which $7n\lt4\times10$, which is $5$.
  10. Adjoin $5$ to your answer, getting $9.4285$.

You can continue with the procedure to get as many decimal places as you wish of $\frac{66}{7}$.


The sequence of actions just listed is quite difficult to follow. What is difficult is not understanding what they say to do, but where did they get the numbers? So do this exercise!

Exercise worth doing:

Check that the procedure above is exactly what you do to divide $66$ by $7$ by the usual method taught in grammar school:

  • The long division process produces as many decimal places as you have stamina for. It is likely for most readers that when you do long division by hand you have done it so much that you know what to do next without having to consult a list of instructions.
  • It is a process or procedure but not what you might want to call a function. The process recursively constructs the successive integers occurring in the decimal expansion of $\frac{66}{7}$.
  • When you carry out the grammar school procedure above, you know at each step what to do next. That is why is it a process. But do you have the procedure in your head all at once?
  • Well, instructions (5) through (10) could be written in a programming language as a while loop, grouping the instructions in pairs of commands ((5) and (6), (7) and (8), and so on). However many times you go through the while loop determines the number of decimal places you get.
  • It can also be described as a formally defined recursive function $F$ for which $F(n)$ is the $n$th digit in the answer.
  • Each of the program and the recursive definition mentioned in the last two bullets are exercises worth doing.
  • Each of the answers to the exercises is then a mathematical object, and that brings us to the next type of metaphor…


A particular kind of metaphor or image for a mathematical concept is that of a mathematical object that represents the concept.


  • The number $10$ is a mathematical object. The expression “$3^2+1$” is also a mathematical object. It encapsulates the process of squaring $3$ and adding $1$, and so its value is $10$.
  • The long division process above finds the successive decimal places of a fraction of integers. A program that carries out the algorithm encapsulates the process of long division as an algorithm. The result is a mathematical object.
  • The expression “$1958$” is a mathematical object, namely the decimal represen­tation of the number $1958$. The expression
    “$7A6$” is the hexadecimal represen­tation of $1958$. Both represen­tations are mathematical objects with precise definitions.

Represen­tations as math objects is discussed primarily in represen­tations and Models. The difference between represen­tations as math objects and other kinds of mental represen­tations (images and metaphors) is primarily that a math object has a precise mathematical definition. Even so, they are also mental represen­tations.

Uses of mental represen­tations

Mental represen­tations of a concept make up what is arguably the most important part of the mathe­matician’s understanding of the concept.

  • Mental represen­tations of mathe­matical objects using metaphors and images are necessary for understanding and communicating about them (especially with types of objects that are new to us) .
  • They are necessary for seeing how the theory can be applied.
  • They are useful for coming up with proofs. (See example below.) 

Many represen­tations

 Different mental represen­tations of the same kind of object
help you understand different aspects of the object. 

Every important mathe­matical object
has many different kinds of represen­tations
and mathe­maticians typically keep
more that one of them in mind at once.

But images and metaphors are also dangerous (see below).

New concepts and old ones

We especially depend on metaphors and images to understand a math concept that is new to us .  But if we work with it for awhile, finding lots of examples, and
eventually proving theorems and providing counterexamples to conjectures, we begin to understand the concept in its own terms and the images and metaphors tend to fade away from our awareness.

Then, when someone asks us about this concept that we are now experts with, we
trundle out our old images and metaphors – and are often surprised at how difficult and misleading our listener finds them!

Some mathe­maticians retreat from images and metaphors because of this and refuse to do more than state the definition and some theorems about the concept. They are wrong to do this. That behavior encourages the attitude of many people that

  • Mathe­maticians can’t explain things.
  • Math concepts are incomprehensible or bizarre.
  • You have to have a mathe­matical mind to understand math.

In my opinion the third statement is only about 10 percent true.

All three of these statements are half-truths. There is no doubt that a lot of abstract math is hard to understand, but understanding is certainly made easier with the use of images and metaphors. 

Images and metaphors on this website

This website has many examples of useful mental represen­tations.  Usually, when a chapter discusses a particular type of mathe­matical object, say rational numbers, there will be a subhead entitled “Images and metaphors for rational numbers”.  This will suggest ways of thinking about them that many have found useful. 

Two levels of images and metaphors

Images and metaphors have to be used at two different levels, depending on your purpose. 

  • You should expect to use rich view for understanding, applications, and coming up with proofs.
  • You must limit yourself to the rigorous view when constructing and checking proofs.

Math teachers and texts typically do not make an explicit distinction between these views, and you have to learn about it by osmosis. In practice, teachers and texts do make the distinction implicitly.  They will say things
like, “You can think about this theorem as …” and later saying, “Now we give a rigorous proof of the theorem.”  Abstractmath.org makes this distinction explicit in many places throughout the site.

rich view

The kind of metaphors and images discussed in the mental represen­tations section above make math rich, colorful and intriguing to think about.  This is the rich view of math.  The rich view is vitally important.  

  • It is what makes math useful and interesting.
  • It helps us to understand the math we are working with.
  • It suggests applications.
  • It suggests approaches to proofs.

You expect the ball whose trajectory is modeled by the function h(t) above  to slow down as it rises, so the derivative of h must be smaller at t
= 4
 than it is at t = 2.  A mathe­matician might even say that that is an “informal proof” that $h'(4)<h'(2)$.  A rigorous proof is given below.

The rigorous view: inertness

When we are constructing a definition or proof we cannot
trust all those wonderful images and metaphors. 

  • Definitions must
    not use metaphors.
  • Proofs must use only logical reasoning based on definitions and
    previously proved theorems.

For the point of view of doing proofs, math
objects must be thought of as inert (or static),
like your pet rock. This means they

  • don’t move or change over time, and
  • don’t interact with other objects, even other mathe­matical objects.

(See also abstract object).

  • When
    mathe­maticians say things like, “Now we give a rigorous proof…”, part of what they mean is that they have to forget about all the color
    and excitement of the rich view and think of math objects as totally
    inert. Like, put the object under an anesthetic
    when you are proving something about it.
  • As I wrote previously, when you are trying to understand arch function $h(t)=25-{{(t-5)}^{2}}$, it helps to think of it as representing a ball thrown directly upward, or as a graph describing the height of the ball at time $t$ which bends over like an arch at the time when the ball stops going upward and begins to fall down.
  • When you proving something about it, you must be in the frame of mind that says the function (or the graph) is all laid out in front of you, unmoving. That is what the rigorous mode requires. Note that the rigorous mode is a way of thinking, not a claim about what the arch function “really is”.
  • When in rigorous mode,  a mathe­matician will
    think of $h$ as a complete mathe­matical object all at once,
    not changing over time. The
    function is the total relationship of the input values of the input parameter
    $t$ to the output values $h(t)$.  It consists of a bunch of interrelated information, but it doesn’t do anything and it doesn’t change.

Formal proof that $h'(4)<h'(2)$

Above, I gave an informal argument for this.   The rigorous way to see that $h'(4)\lt h'(2)$ for the arch function is to calculate the derivative \[h'(t)=10-2t\] and plug in 4 and 2 to get \[h'(4)=10-8=2\] which is less than $h'(2)=10-4=6$.

Note the embedded

This argument picks out particular data about the function that
prove the statement.  It says nothing about anything slowing down as $t$
increases.  It says nothing about anything at all changing.

Other examples

  • The rigorous way to say that “Integers go to infinity in both directions” is something like this:  “For every integer n there is an integer k such that k < n  and an integer m such that n < m.”
  • The rigorous way to say that continuous functions don’t have gaps in their graph is to use the $\varepsilon-\delta $ definition of continuity.
  • Conditional assertions are one important aspect of mathe­matical reasoning in which this concept of unchanging inertness clears up a lot of misunderstanding.   “If… then…” in our intuition contains an idea of causation and of one thing happening before another (see also here).  But if objects are inert they don’t cause anything and if they are unchanging then “when” is meaningless.

The rigorous view does not apply to all abstract objects, but only to mathe­matical objects.  See abstract objects for examples.

Metaphors and images are dangerous

The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.–Norbert Wiener

mental represen­tation has flaws. Each oneprovides a way of thinking about an $A$ as a kind of $B$ in some respects. But the represen­tation can have irrelevant features.  People new to the subject will be tempted to think  about $A$ as a kind of $B$ in inappropriate respects as well.  This is a form of cognitive dissonance.

 It may be that most difficulties students have with abstract math are based on not knowing which aspects of a given represen­tation are applicable in a given situation.  Indeed, on not being consciously aware that in general you must restrict the applicability of the mental pictures that come with a represen­tation.

In abstractmath.org you will sometimes see this statement:  “What is wrong with this metaphor:”  (or image, or represen­tation) to warn you about the flaws of that particular represen­tation.


The graph of the arch function $h(t)$ makes it look like the two arms going downward become so nearly vertical that the curve has vertical asymptotes
But it does not have asymptotes.  The arms going down are underneath every point of the $x$-axis. For example, there is a point on the curve underneath the point $(999,0)$, namely $(999, -988011)$.


A set is sometimes described as analogous to A container. But consider:  the integer 3 is “in” the set of all odd integers, and it is also “in” the set $\left\{ 1,\,2,\,3 \right\}$.  How could something be in two containers at once?  (More about this here.)

An analogy can be help­ful, but it isn’t the same thing as the same thing. – The Economist


Mathe­maticians think of the real numbers as constituting a line infinitely long in both directions, with each number as a point on the line. But this does not mean that you can think of the line as a row of points. See density of the real line.


We commonly think of functions as machines that turn one number into another.  But this does not mean that, given any such function, we can construct a machine (or a program) that can calculate it.  For many functions, it is not only impractical to do, it is theoretically
impossible to do it.
They are not href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recursive_function_theory#Turing_computability”>computable. In other words, the machine picture of a function does not apply to all functions.


The images and metaphors you use
to think about a mathe­matical object
are limited in how they apply.

The images and metaphors you use to think about the subject
cannot be directly used in a proof.
Only definitions and previously proved theorems can be used in a proof.

Final remarks

Mental represen­tations are physical represen­tations

It seems likely that cognitive phenomena such as images and metaphors are physically represented in the brain as collec­tions of neurons connected in specific ways.  Research on this topic is pro­ceeding rapidly.  Perhaps someday we will learn things about how we think physi­cally that actually help us learn things about math.

In any case, thinking about mathe­matical objects as physi­cally represented in your brain (not neces­sarily completely or correctly!) wipes out a lot of the dualistic talk about ideas and physical objects as
separate kinds of things.  Ideas, in partic­ular math objects, are emergent constructs in the
physical brain. 

About metaphors

The language that nature speaks is mathe­matics. The language that ordinary human beings speak is metaphor. Freeman Dyson

“Metaphor” is used in abstractmath.org to describe a type of thought configuration.  It is an implicit conceptual identification
of part of one type of situation with part of another. 

Metaphors are a fundamental way we understand the world. In particular,they are a fundamental way we understand math.

The word “metaphor”

The word “metaphor” is also used in rhetoric as the name of a type of figure of speech.  Authors often refer to metaphor in the meaning of  thought configuration as a conceptual metaphor.  Other figures of speech, such as simile and synecdoche, correspond to conceptual metaphors as well.

References for metaphors in general cognition:

Fauconnier, G. and Turner, M., The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities . Basic Books, 2008.

Lakoff, G., Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Lakoff, G. and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By
The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

References for metaphors and images in math:

Byers, W., How mathe­maticians Think.  Princeton University Press, 2007.

Lakoff, G. and R. E. Núñez, Where mathe­matics Comes
. Basic Books, 2000.

Math Stack Exchange list of explanatory images in math.

Núñez, R. E., “Do Real Numbers Really Move?”  Chapter
in 18 Unconventional Essays on the Nature of mathe­matics, Reuben Hersh,
Ed. Springer, 2006.

Charles Wells,
Handbook of mathe­matical Discourse.

Charles Wells, Conceptual blending. Post in Gyre&Gimble.

Other articles in abstractmath.org

Conceptual and computational

Functions: images and metaphors

Real numbers: images and metaphors

represen­tations and models

Sets: metaphors and images

Creative Commons License< ![endif]>

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Send to Kindle

Thinking about thought

Modules of the brain

Cognitive neuroscientists have taken the point of view that concepts, memories, words, and so on are represented in the brain by physical systems: perhaps they are individual neurons, or systems of structures, or even waves of discharges. In my previous writing I have referred to these as modules, and I will do that here. Each module is connected to many other modules that encode various properties of the concept, thoughts and memories that occur when you think of that concept (in other words stimulate the module), and so on.

How these modules implement the way we think and perceive the world is not well understood and forms a major research task of cognitive neuroscience. The fact that they are implemented in physical systems in the brain gives us a new way of thinking about thought and perception.


The grandmother module

There is a module in your brain representing the concept of grandmother. It is likely to be connected to other modules representing your actual grandmothers if you have any memory of them. These modules are connected to many others — memories (if you knew them), other relatives related to them, incidents in their lives that you were told about, and so on. Even if you don’t have any memory of them, you have a module representing the fact that you don’t have any memory of them, and maybe modules explaining why you don’t.

Each different aspect related to “grandmother” belongs to a separate module somehow connected to the grandmother module. That may be hard to believe, but the human brain has over eighty billion neurons.

A particular module connected with math

There is a module in your brain connected with the number $42$. That module has many connections to things you know about it, such as its factorization, the fact that it is an integer, and so on. The module may also have connections to a module concerning the attitude that $42$ is the Answer. If it does, that module may have a connection with the module representing Douglas Adams. He was physically outside your body, but is the number $42$ outside your body?

That has a decidedly complicated answer. The number $42$ exists in a network of brains which communicate with each other and share some ideas about properties of $42$. So it exists socially. This social existence occasionally changes your knowledge of the properties of $42$ and in particular may make you realize that you were wrong about some of its aspects. (Perhaps you once thought it was $7\times 8$.)

This example suggests how I have been using the module idea to explain how we think about math.

A new metaphor for understanding thinking

I am proposing to use the idea of module as a metaphor for thinking about thinking. I believe that it clarifies a lot of the confusion people have about the relation between thinking and the real world. In particular it clarifies why we think of mathematical objects as if they were real-world objects (see Modules and math below.)

I am explicitly proposing this metaphor as a successor to previous metaphors drawn from science to explain things. For example when machines became useful in the 18th century many naturalists used metaphors such as the Universe is a Machine or the Body is a Machine as a way of understanding the world. In the 20th century we fell heavily for the metaphor that the Mind Is A Computer (or Program). Both the 18th century and the 20th century metaphors (in my opinion) improved our understanding of things, even though they both fell short in many ways.

In no way am I claiming that the ways of thinking I am pushing have anything but a rough resemblance to current neuroscientists’ thinking. Even so, further discoveries in neuroscience may give us even more insight into thinking that they do now. Unless at some point something goes awry and we have to, ahem, think differently again.

For thousands of years, new scientific theories have been giving us new metaphors for thinking about life, the universe and everything. I am saying here is a new apple on the tree of knowledge; let’s eat it.

The rest of this post elaborates my proposed metaphor. Like any metaphor, it gets some things right and some wrong, and my explanations of how it works are no doubt full of errors and dubious ideas. Nevertheless, I think it is worth thinking about thought using these ideas with the usual correction process that happens in society with new metaphors.

Our theory of the world

We don’t have any direct perception of the “real world”; we have only the sensations we get from those parts of our body which sense things in the world. These sensations are organized by our brain into a theory of the world.

  • The theory of the world says that the world is “out there” and that our sensory units give us information about it. We are directly aware of our experiences because they are a function of our brain. That the experiences (many of them) originate from outside our body is a very plausible theory generated by our brain on the bases of these experience.
  • The theory is generated by our brain in a way that we cannot observe and is out of our control (mostly). We see a table and we know we can see in in daytime but not when it is dark and we can bump into it, which causes experiences to occur via our touch and sound facilities. But the concept of “table” and the fact that we decide something is or is not a table takes place in our brain, not “out there”.
  • We do make some conscious amendments to the theory. For example, we “know” the sky is not a blue shell around our world, although it looks like it. That we think of the apparent blue surface as an artifact of our vision processing comes about through conscious reasoning. But most of how we understand the world comes about subconsciously.
  • Our brain (and the rest of our body) does an enormous amount of processing to create the view of the world that we have. Visual perception requires a huge amount of processing in our brain and the other sensory methods we use also undergo a lot of processing, but not as much as vision.
  • The theory of the world organizes a lot of what we experience as interaction with physical objects. We perceive physical objects as having properties such as persistence, changing with time, and so on. Our brains create the concept of physical object and the properties of persistence, changing, and particular properties an individual object might have.
  • We think of the Mississippi River as an object that is many years old even though none of its current molecules are the same as were in the river a decade ago. How is it one thing when its substance is constantly changing? This is a famous and ancient conundrum which becomes a non-problem if you realize that the “object” is created inside your brain and imposed by your thinking on your understanding of the world.
  • The notion that semantics is a connection between our brain and the outside world has also become a philosophical conundrum that vanishes if we understand that the connection with the outside world exists entirely inside our theory, which is entirely within our brain.


Our brain also has a theory of society We are immersed in a world of people, that we have close connections with some of them and more distant connections with many other via speech, stories, reading and various kinds of long-distance communications.

  • We associate with individual people, in our family and with our friend. The communication is not just through speech: it involves vision heavily (seeing what The Other is thinking) and probably through pheromones, among other channels. For one perspective on vision, see The vision revolution, by Mark Changizi. (Review)
  • We consciously and unconsciously absorb ideas and attitudes (cultural and otherwise) from the people around us, especially including the adults and children we grow up with. In this way we are heavily embedded in the social world, which creates our point of view and attitudes by our observation and experience and presumably via memes. An example is the widespread recent changes in attitudes in the USA concerning gay marriage.
  • The theory of society seems to me to be a mechanism in our brain that is separate from our theory of the physical world, but which interacts with it. But it may be that it is better to regard the two theories as modules in one big theory.

Modules and math

The module associated with a math object is connected to many other modules, some of which have nothing to do with math.

  • For example, they may have have connections to our sensory organs. We may get a physical feeling that the parabola $y=x^2$ is going “up” as $x$ “moves to the right”. The mirror neurons in our brain that “feel” this are connected to our “parabola $y=x^2$” module. (See Constructivism and Platonism and the posts it links to.)
  • I tend to think of math objects as “things”. Every time I investigate the number $111$, it turns out to be $3\times37$. Every time I investigate the alternating group on $6$ letters it is simple. If I prove a new theorem it feels as if I have discovered the theorem. So math objects are out there and persistent.
  • If some math calculation does not give the same answer the second time I frequently find that I made a mistake. So math facts are consistent.
  • There is presumably a module that recognizes that something is “out there” when I have repeatable and consistent experiences with it. The feeling originates in a brain arranged to detect consistent behavior. The feeling is not evidence that math objects exist in some ideal space. In this way, my proposed new way of thinking about thought abolishes all the problems with Platonism.
  • If I think of two groups that are isomorphic (for example the cyclic group of order $3$ and the alternating group of rank $3$), I picture them as in two different places with a connection between the two isomorphic ones. This phenomenon is presumably connected with modules that respond to seeing physical objects and carrying with them a sense of where they are (two different places). This is a strategy my brain uses to think about objects without having to name them, using the mechanism already built in to think about two things in different places.


Many of the ideas in this post come from my previous writing, listed in the references. This post was also inspired by ideas from Chomsky, Jackendoff (particularly Chapter 9), the Scientific American article Brain cells for Grandmother by Quian Quiroga, Fried and Koch, and the papers by Ernest and Hersh.


Previous posts

In reverse chronological order

Abstractmath articles

Other sources

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Send to Kindle

Guest post by F. Kafi

Before I posted Extensional and Intensional, I had emailed a draft to F. Kafi.  The following was his response.  –cw


In your example, “Suppose you set out to prove that if $f(x)$ is a differentiable function and $f(a)=0$ and the graph going from left to right goes UP to $f(a)$ and then DOWN after that then $a$ has to be a maximum of the function”, could we have the graph of the function $f(x)$ without being aware of the internal structure of the function; i.e., the mathematical formulation of $f(x)$ such as $f(x):=-(x-a)^2$ or simply its intensional meaning? Certainly not.

Furthermore, what paves the way for the comparison with our real world experiences leading to the metaphoric thinking is nothing but the graph of the function. Therefore, it is the intensional meaning of the function which makes the metaphoric mode of thinking possible.

The intensional meaning is specially required if we are using a grounding metaphor. A grounding metaphor uses concepts from our physical and real world life. As a result we require a medium to connect such real life concepts like “going up” and “going down” to mathematical concepts like the function $f(x)$. The intensional meaning of function $f(x)$ through providing numbers opens the door of the mind to the outer world. This is possible because numbers themselves are the result of a kind of abstraction process which the famous educational psychologist Piaget calls empirical abstraction. In fact, through empirical abstraction we transform the real world experience to numbers.



Let’s consider an example. We see some racing cars in the picture above, a real world experience if you are the spectator of a car match. The empirical abstraction works something like this:



Now we may choose a symbol like "$5$" to denote our understanding of "|||||".

It is now clear that the metaphoric mode of thinking is the reverse process of “empirical abstraction”. For example, in comparing “|||||||||||” with “||||” we may say “A car race with more competing cars is much more exciting than a much less crowded one.” Therefore, “|||||||||||”>“||”, where “>” is the abstraction of “much more exciting than”.

In the rigorous mode of thinking, the idea is almost similar. However, there is an important difference. Here again we have a metaphor. But this time, the two concepts are mathematical. There is no outer world concept. For example, we want to prove a differentiable function is also a continuous one. Both concepts of “differentiability” and “continuity” have rigorous mathematical definitions. Actually, we want to show that differentiability is similar to continuity, a linking metaphor. As a result, we again require a medium to connect the two mathematical concepts. This time there is no need to open the door of the mind to the outer world because the two concepts are in the mind. Hence, the intensional meaning of function $f(x)$ through providing numbers is not helpful. However, we need the intensional meanings of differentiability and continuity of $f(x)$; i.e., the logical definitions of differentiability and continuity.

In the case of comparing the graph of $f(x$) with a real hill we associated dots on the graph with the path on the hill. Right? Here we need to do the the same. We need to associate the $f(x)$’s in the definition of differentailblity to the $f(x)$’s used in the definition of continuity. The $f(x)$’s play the role of dots on the graph. As the internal structure of dots on the graph are unimportant to the association process in the grounding metaphor, the internal structure of $f(x)$’s in the logical definition are unimportant to the association process in the linking metaphor. Therefore, we only need the extensional meaning of the function $f(x)$; i.e., syntactically valid roles it can play in expressions.

Send to Kindle

Extensional and Intensional

This post uses the word intensional, which is not the word "intentional" and doesn't mean the same thing.


The connection between rich view/rigorous view and intensional/extensional


In the abmath article Images and Metaphors I wrote about the rigorous view of math, in contrast to the rich view which allows metaphors, images and intuition. F. Kafi has proposed the following thesis:

The rigorous mode of thinking deals with the extensional meaning of mathematical objects while the metaphoric mode of thinking deals with the intensional meaning of mathematical objects.

This statement is certainly suggestive as an analogy. I have several confused and disjointed thoughts about it.

What does "intensional" mean?


Philosophers say that "the third largest planet in the solar system" has intensional meaning and "Neptune" has extensional meaning. Among other things we might discover a planet ridiculously far out that is bigger than Neptune. But the word "Neptune" denotes a specific object.

The intensional meaning of "the third largest planet in the solar system" has a hidden time dimension that, if made overt, makes the statement more nearly explicit. (Don't read this paragraph as a mathematical statement; it is merely thrashing about to inch towards understanding.)

Computing science

Computer languages are distinguishes as intensional or extensional, but their meaning there is technical, although clearly related to the philosophers' meaning.

I don't understand it very well, but in Type Theory and in Logic, an intensional language seems to make a distinction between declaring two math objects to be equal and proving that they are equal. In an extensional language there is no such distinction, with the effect that in a typed language typing would be undecidable.

Here is another point: If you define the natural numbers by the Peano axioms, you can define addition and then prove that addition is commutative. But for example a vector space is usually defined by axioms and one of the axioms is a declaration that addition of vectors is commutative. That is an imposed truth, not a deduced one. So is the difference between intensional and extensional languages really a big deal or just a minor observation?

What is "dry-bones rigor"?

Another problem is that I have never spelled out in more than a little detail what I mean by rigor, dry-bones rigor as I have called it. This is about the process mathematicians go through to prove a theorem, and I don't believe that process can be given a completely mathematical description. But I could go into much more detail than I have in the past.

Suppose you set out to prove that if $f(x)$ is a differentiable function and $f(a)=0$ and the graph going from left to right goes UP before $x$ reaches $a$ and then DOWN for $x$ to the right of $a$, then $a$ has to be a maximum of the function. That is a metaphorical description based on the solid physical experience of walking up to the top of a hill. But when you get into the proof you start using lots of epsilons and deltas. This abandons ideas of moving up and down and left to right and so on. As one of the members of Bourbaki said, rigorous math is when everything goes dead. That sounds like extensionality, but isn't their work really based on the idea that everything has to be reduced to sets and logic? (This paragraph was modified on 2013.11.07)

Many perfectly rigorous proofs are based on reasoning in category theory. You can define an Abelian group as a categorical diagram with the property that any product preserving functor to any category will result in a group. This takes you away from sets altogether, and is a good illustration of the axiomatic method. It is done by using nodes, arrows and diagrams. The group is an object and the binary operation is an arrow from the square of the object. Commutativity is required by stating that a certain diagram must commute. But when you prove that two elements in an Abelian group (an Abelian topological group, an Abelian group in the category of differentiable manifolds, or whatever) can be added in either order, then you find yourself staring at dead arrows and diagrams rather than dead collections of things and so you are still in rigor mortis mode.

I will write a separate post describing these examples in much more detail than you might want to think about.

Metaphors and intensionality

One other thing I won't go into now: How are thinking in metaphors and intensional descriptions related? It seems to me the two ideas are related somehow, but I don't know how to formulate it.

Send to Kindle

Thinking about a function as a mathematical object

A mathematician’s mental representation of a function is generally quite rich and may involve many different metaphors and images kept in mind simultaneously. The abmath article on metaphors and images for functions discusses many of these representations, although the article is incomplete. This post is a fairly thorough rewrite of the discussion in that article of the representation of the concept of “function” as a mathematical object. You must think of functions as math objects when you are taking the rigorous view, which happens when you are trying to prove something about functions (or large classes of functions) in general.

What often happens is that you visualize one of your functions in many of the ways described in this article (it is a calculation, it maps one space to another, its graph is bounded, and so on) but those images can mislead you. So when you are completely stuck, you go back to thinking of the function as an axiomatically-defined mathe­matical structure of some sort that just sits there, like a complicated machine where you can see all the parts and how they relate to each other. That enables you to prove things by strict logical deduction. (Mathematicians mostly only go this far when they are desperate. We would much rather quote somebody’s theorem.) This is what I have called the dry bones approach.

The “mathematical structure” is most commonly a definition of function in terms of sets and axioms. The abmath article Specification and definition of “function” discusses the usual definitions of “function” in detail.


This example is intended to raise your consciousness about the possibilities for functions as objects.

Consider the function $f:\mathbb{R}\to\mathbb{R}$ defined by $f(x)=2{{\sin }^{2}}x-1$. Its value can be computed at many different numbers but it is a single, static math object.

You can apply operators to it

  • Just as you can multiply a number by $2$, you can multiply $f$ by $2$.   You can say “Let $g(x)=2f(x)$” or “Let $g=2f$”. Multiplying a numerical function by $2$ is an operator that take the function $f$ to $2f$. Its input is a function and its output is another function. Then the value of $g$ (which is $2f$) at any real $x$ is $g(x)=2f(x)=4{{\sin }^{2}}x-2$. The notation  “$g=2f$” reveals that mathematicians think of $f$ as a single math object just as the $3$ in the expression “$2\times 3$” represents the number $3$ as a single object.
  • But you can’t do arithmetic operations to functions that don’t have numerical output, such as the function $\text{FL}$ that takes an English word to its first letter, so $\text{FL}(`\text{wolf’})=`\text{w’}$. (The quotes mean that I am writing about the word ‘wolf’ and the letter ‘w’.) The expression $2\times \text{FL}(`\text{wolf’})$ doesn’t make sense because ‘w’ is a letter, not a number.
  • You can find the derivative.  The derivative operator is a function from differentiable functions to functions. Such a thing is usually called an operator.  The derivative operator is sometimes written as $D$, so $Df$ is the function defined by: “$(Df)(x)$ is the slope of the tangent line to $f$ at the point $(x,f(x)$.” That is a perfectly good definition. In calculus class you learn formulas that allow you to calculate $(Df)(x)$ (usually called “$f'(x)$”) to be $4 \sin (x) \cos (x)$.

Like all math objects, functions may have properties

  • The function defined by $f(x)=2{{\sin}^{2}}x-1$ is differentiable, as noted above. It is also continuous.
  • But $f$ is not injective. This means that two different inputs can give the same output. For example,$f(\frac{\pi}{3})=f(\frac{4\pi}{3})=\frac{1}{2}$. This is a property of the whole function, not individual values. It makes no sense to say that $f(\frac{\pi}{3})$ is injective.
  • The function $f$ is periodic with period $2\pi$, meaning that for any $x$, $f(x+2\pi)=f(x)$.     It is the function itself that has period $2\pi$, not any particular value of it.  

As a math object, a function can be an element of a set

  • For example,$f$ is an element of the set ${{C}^{\infty }}(\mathbb{R})$ of real-valued functions that have derivatives of all orders.
  • On ${{C}^{\infty }}(\mathbb{R})$, differentiation is an operator that takes a function in that set to another function in the set.   It takes $f(x)$ to the function $4\sin x\cos x$.
  • If you restrict $f$ to the unit interval, it is an element of the function space ${{\text{L}}^{2}}[0,1]$.   As such it is convenient to think of it as a point in the space (the whole function is the point, not just values of it).    In this particular space, you can think of the points as vectors in an uncountably-infinite-dimensional space. (Ideas like that weird some people out. Do not worry if you are one of them. If you keep on doing math, function spaces will seem ordinary. They are OK by me, except that I think they come in entirely too many different kinds which I can never keep straight.) As a vector, $f$ has a norm, which you can think of as its length. The norm of $f$ is about $0.81$.

The discussion above shows many examples of thinking of a function as an object. You are thinking about it as an undivided whole, as a chunk, just as you think of the number $3$ (or $\pi$) as just a thing. You think the same way about your bicycle as a whole when you say, “I’ll ride my bike to the library”. But if the transmission jams, then you have to put it down on the grass and observe its individual pieces and their relation to each other (the chain came off a gear or whatever), in much the same way as noticing that the function $g(x)=x^3$ goes through the origin and looks kind of flat there, but at $(2,8)$ it is really rather steep. Phrases like “steep” and “goes through the origin” are a clue that you are thinking of the function as a curve that goes left to right and levels off in one place and goes up fast in another — you are thinking in a dynamic, not a static way like the dry bones of a math object.

Send to Kindle

Modules for mathematical objects

Notes on viewing.

A recent article in Scientific American mentions discusses the idea that concepts are represented in the brain by clumps of neurons.  Other neuroscientists have proposed that each concept is distributed among millions of neurons, or that each concept corresponds to one neuron.  

I have written many posts about the idea that:  

  • Each mathematical concept is embodied in some kind of module in the brain.
  • This idea is a useful metaphor for understanding how we think about mathematical objects.
  • You don't have to know the details of the method of storage for this metaphor to be useful.  
  • The metaphor clears up a number of paradoxes and conundrums that have agitated philosophers of math.

The SA article inspired me to write about just how such a module may work in some specific cases.  


Mathematicians normally thinks of a particular integer, say $42$, as some kind of abstract object, and the decimal representation "42" as a representation of the integer, along with XLII and 2A$_{16}$.  You can visualize the physical process like this: 

  • The mathematician has a module Int (clump of neurons or whatever) that represents integers, and a module FT that represents the particular integer $42$. 
  • There is some kind of asymmetric three-way connection from FT to Int and a module EO (for "element of" or "IS_A"). 
  • That the connection is "asymmetric" means that the three modules play different roles in the connection, meaning something like "$42$ IS_A Integer"
  • The connection is a physical connection, not a sentence, and when  FT is alerted ("fired"?), Int and EO are both alerted as well. 
  • That means that if someone asks the mathematician, "Is $42$ an integer?", they answer immediately without having to think about it — it is a random access concept like (for many people) knowing that September has 30 days.
  • The module for $42$ has many other connections to other modules in the brain, and these connections vary among mathematicians.

The preceding description gives no details about how the modules and interconnections are physically processed.  Neuroscientists probably would have lots of ideas about this (with no doubt considerable variation) and would criticize what I wrote as misrepresenting the physical details in some ways.  But the physical details are their job, not mine.  What I claim is that this way of thinking makes it plausible to view abstract objects and their properties and relationships as physical objects in the brain.  You don't have to know the details any more than you have to know the details of how a rainbow works to see it (but you know that a rainbow is a physical phenomenon).

This way of thinking provides a metaphor for thinking about math objects, a metaphor that is plausibly related to what happens in the real world.


A student may have a rather different representation of $42$ in the brain.  For one thing, their module for $42$ may not distinguish the symbol "42" from the number $42$, which is an abstract object.   As a result they ask questions such as, "Is $42$ composite in hexadecimal?"  This phenomenon reveals a complicated situation. 

  • People think they are talking about the same thing when in fact their internal modules for that thing may be very differently connected to other concepts in their brain.
  • Mathematicians generally share many more similarities in their modules for $42$ than people in general do.  When they differ, the differences may be of the sort that one of them is a number theorist, so knows more about $42$ (for example, that it is a Catalan number) than another mathematician does.  Or has read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
  • Mathematicians also share a stance that there are right and wrong beliefs about mathematical objects, and that there is a received method for distinguishing correct from erroneous statements about a particular kind of object. (I am not saying the method always gives an answer!).
  • Of course, this stance constitutes a module in the brain. 
  • Some philosophers of education believe that this stance is erroneous, that the truth or falsity of statements are merely a matter of social acceptance.
  • In fact, the statements in purple are true of nearly all mathematicians.  
  • The fact that the truth or falsity of statements is merely a matter of social acceptance is also true, but the word "merely" is misleading.
  • The fact is that overwhelming evidence provided by experience shows that the "received method" (proof) for determining the truth of math statements works well and can be depended on. Teachers need to convince their students of this by examples rather that imposing the received method as an authority figure.

Real numbers

A mathematician thinks of a real number as having a decimal representation.

  • The representation is an infinitely long list of decimal digits, together with a location for the decimal point. (Ignoring conventions about infinite strings of zeroes.)
  • There is a metaphor that you can go along the list from left to right and when you do you get a better approximation of the "value" of the real number. (The "value" is typically thought of in terms of the metaphor of a point on the real line.)
  • Mathematicians nevertheless think of the entries in the decimal expansion of a real number as already in existence, even though you may not be able to say what they all are.
  • There is no contradiction between the points of view expressed in the last two bullets.
  • Students frequently do not believe that the decimal entries are "already there".  As a result they may argue fiercely that $.999\ldots$ cannot possibly be the same number as $1$.  (The Wikipedia article on this topic has to be one of the most thoroughly reworked math articles in the encyclopedia.)

All these facts correspond to modules in mathematicians' and students' brains.  There are modules for real number, metaphor, infinite list, decimal digit, decimal expansion, and so on.  This does not mean that the module has a separate link to each one of the digits in the decimal expansion.  The idea that there is an entry at every one of the infinite number of locations is itself a module, and no one has ever discovered a contradiction resulting from holding that belief.


  • Brain cells for Grandmother, by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, Itzhak Fried and Christof Koch.  Scientific American, February 2013, pages 31ff.

Gyre&Gimble posts on modules

Notes on Viewing  

This post uses MathJax. If you see mathematical expressions with dollar signs around them, or badly formatted formulas, try refreshing the screen. Sometimes you have to do it two or three times.



Send to Kindle

Explaining “higher” math to beginners

The interactive example in this post require installing Wolfram CDF player, which is free and works on most desktop computers using Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer, but not Chrome. The source code is the Mathematica Notebook algebra2.nb, which is available for free use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License. The notebook can be read by CDF Player if you cannot make the embedded versions in this post work.

Notes on viewing

Explaining math

I am in the process of writing an explanation of monads for people with not much math background.  In that article, I began to explain my ideas about exposition for readers at that level and after I had written several paragraphs decided I needed a separate article about exposition.  This is that article. It is mostly about language.

Who is it written for?

Interested laypeople

There are many recent books explaining some aspect of math for people who are not happy with high school algebra; some of them are listed in the references.  They must be smart readers who know how to concentrate, but for whom algebra and logic and definition-theorem-proof do not communicate.  They could be called interested laypeople, but that is a lousy name and I would appreciate suggestions for a better name. 

Math newbies

My post on monads is aimed at people who have some math, and who are interested in "understanding" some aspect of "higher math"; not understanding in the sense of being able to prove things about monads, but merely how to think about them.   I will call them math newbies.  Of course, I am including math majors, but I want to make it available to other people who are willing to tackle mathematical explanations and who are interested in knowing more about advanced stuff. 

These "other people" may include people (students and practitioners) in other science & technology areas as well as liberal-artsy people.  There are such people, I have met them.  I recall one theologian who asked me about what was the big deal about ruler-and-compass construction and who seemed to feel enlightened when I told him that those constructions preserve exactly the ideal nature of geometric objects.  (I later found out he was a famous theologian I had never heard of, just like Ngô Bảo Châu is a famous mathematician nonmathematicians have never heard of.)

Algebra and other foreign languages

If you are aiming at interested laypeople you absolutely must avoid algebra.  It is a foreign language that simply does not communicate to most of the educated people in the world.  Learning a foreign language is difficult. 

So how do you avoid algebra?  Well, you have to be clever and insightful.  The book by Matthew Watkins (below) has absolutely wonderful tricks for doing that, and I think anyone interested in math exposition ought to read it.  He uses metaphors, pictures and saying the same thing in different words. When you finish reading his book, you won't know how to prove statements related to the prime number theorem (unless you already knew how) but you have a good chance of understanding the statement of some theorem in that subject. See my review of the book for more details.

If your article is for math newbies, you don't have to avoid algebra completely.  But remember they are newbies and not as fluent as you are — they do things analogous to "Throw Mama from the train a kiss" and "I can haz cheeseburger?".  But if you are trying to give them some way of thinking about a concept, you need many other things (metaphors, illustrative applications, diagrams…)  You don't need the definition-theorem-proof style too common in "exposition".  (You do need that for math majors who want to become professional mathematicians.) 

Unfamiliar notation

In writing expositions for interested laypeople or math newbies, you should not introduce an unfamiliar notation system (which is like a minilanguage).  I expect to write the monad article without commutative diagrams.  Now, commutative diagrams are a wonderful invention, the best way of writing about categories, and they are widely used by other than category theorists.  But to explain monads to a newbie by introducing and then using commutative diagrams is like incorporating a short grammar of Spanish which you will then use in an explanation of Sancho Panza's relationship with Don Quixote. 

The abstractmath article on and, or and not does not use any of the several symbolic notations for logic that are in use.  The explanations simply use "and", "or" and "not".  I did introduce the notation, but didn't use it in the explanations.  When I rewrite the article I expect to put the notation at the end of the article instead of in the middle.  I expect to rewrite the other articles on mathematical reasoning to follow that practice, too.

Technical terminology

This is about the technical terminology used in math.  Technical terminology belongs to the math dialect (or register) of English, which is not a foreign language in the same sense as algebra.  One big problem is changing the meaning of ordinary English words to a technical meaning.  This requires a definition, and definitions are not something most people take seriously until they have been thoroughly brainwashed into using mathematical methodology.  Math majors have to be brainwashed in this way, but if you are writing for laypeople or newbies you cannot use the technology of formal definition.

Groups, simple groups

"You say the Monster Group is SIMPLE???  You must be a GENIUS!"  So Mark Ronan in his book (below) referred to simple groups as atoms.  Marcus du Sautoy calls them building blocks.  The mathematical meaning of "simple group" is not a transparent consequence of the meanings of "simple" and "group". Du Sautoy usually writes "group of symmetries" instead of just "group", which gives you an image of what he is talking about without having to go into the abstract definition of group. So in that usage, "group" just means "collection", which is what some students continue to think well after you give the definition.  

A better, but ugly, name for "group" might be "symmetroid". It sounds technical, but that might be an advantage, not a disadvantage. "Group" obviously means any collection, as I've known since childhood. "Symmetroid" I've never heard of so maybe I'd better find out what it means.

In beginning abstract math courses my students fervently (but subconsciously) believe that they can figure out what a word means by what it means already, never mind the "definition" which causes their eyes to glaze over. You have to be really persuasive to change their minds.

Prime factorization

Matthew Watkins referred to the prime factorization of an integer as a cluster. I am not sure why Watkins doesn't like "prime factorization", which usually refers to an expression such as  $p^{n_1}_1p^{n_2}_2\ldots p^{n_k}_k$.  This (as he says) has a spurious ordering that makes you have to worry about what the uniqueness of factorization means. The prime factorization is really a multiset of primes, where the order does not matter. 

Watkins illustrates a cluster of primes as a bunch of pingpong balls stuck together with glue, so the prime factorization of 90 would be four smushed together balls marked 2, 3, 3 and 5. Below is another way of illustrating the prime factorization of 90. Yes, the random movement programming could be improved, but Mathematica seduces you into infinite playing around and I want to finish this post. (Actually, I am beginning to think I like smushed pingpong balls better. Even better would be a smushed pingpong picture that I could click on and look at it from different angles.)

Metaphors, pictures, graphs, animation

Any exposition of math should use metaphors, pictures and graphs, especially manipulable pictures (like the one above) and graphs.  This applies to expositions for math majors as well as laypeople and newbies.  Calculus and other texts nowadays have begun doing this, more with pictures than with metaphors. 

I was turned on to these ideas as far back as 1967 (date not certain) when I found an early version of David Mumford's "Red Book", which I think evolved into the book The Red Book of Varieties and Schemes.  The early version was a revelation to me both about schemes and about exposition. I have lost the early book and only looked at the published version briefly when it appeared (1999).  I remember (not necessarily correctly) that he illustrated the spectrum as a graph whose coordinates were primes, and generic points were smudges.  Writing this post has motivated me to go to the University of Minnesota math library and look at the published version again.


Expositions for educated non-mathematicians

Previous posts in G&G

Relevant abmath articles

Send to Kindle