Monday, June 4, 2007

How to Read Mathematics


by Shai Simonson and Fernando Gouvea

Mathematics is "a language that can neither be read nor understood without initiation". (Edward Rothstein, Emblems of Mind, Avon Books, page 15).

A reading protocol is a set of strategies that a reader must use in order to benefit fully from reading the text. Poetry calls for a different set of strategies than fiction, and fiction a different set than non-fiction. It would be ridiculous to read fiction and ask oneself what is the author's source for the assertion that the hero is blond and tanned; it would be wrong to read non-fiction and not ask such a question. This reading protocol extends to a viewing or listening protocol in art and music. Indeed, much of the introductory course material in literature, music and art is spent teaching these protocols.

Mathematics has a reading protocol all its own, and just as we learn to read literature, we should learn to read mathematics. Students need to learn how to read mathematics, in the same way they learn how to read a novel or a poem, listen to music, or view a painting.

When we read a novel we become absorbed in the plot and characters. We try to follow the various plot lines and how each affects the development of the characters. We make sure that the characters become real people to us, both those we admire and those we despise. We do not stop at every word, but imagine the words as brushstrokes in a painting. Even if we are not familiar with any particular word, we can still see the whole picture. We rarely stop to think about individual phrases and sentences. Instead, we let the novel sweep us along with its flow and carry us swiftly to the end. The experience is rewarding, relaxing and thought provoking.

Novelists frequently describe characters by involving them in well-chosen anecdotes, rather than by describing them by well-chosen adjectives. They portray one aspect, then another, then the first again in a new light and so on, as the whole picture grows and comes more and more into focus. This is the way to communicate complex thoughts that defy precise definition.

Both a mathematics article and a novel are telling a story and developing complex ideas. The greatest difference is that a math article does the job with a tiny fraction of the words and symbols of those used in a novel. Mathematical ideas are by nature precise and well defined, so that a precise description is possible in a very short space.

The beauty in a novel is in the aesthetic way it uses language to evoke emotions and present themes which defy precise definition. The beauty in a mathematics article is in the elegant efficient way it concisely describes precise ideas of great complexity.

What are the common mistakes people make in trying to read mathematics? How can these mistakes be corrected?"

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