The Problem with Writing about Mathematics
By Jamieson Kaiser, Monash University
I remember when I finally had the idea. I was very excited.
After two weeks of working full time on my AMSI project (a life time for a university student), I was taking a well-deserved break over Christmas. Santa brought me something special this year, I finally had an idea of what to write about for my blog post.
I figured out a way to explain a very clever little trick I learnt while working on my project, a way to massively speed up the generation of large random networks. I know it sounds fascinating already but I devised a way to explain it in the context of Australia’s favourite summer obsession, cricket!
So I set out writing it again and again, constantly trying to simplify it, make it fun and easy to read. I laboured hard in the summer sun, making pretty diagrams to go with it, agonising over every little detail and frequently battling my own self-doubt that it was a good idea to begin with.
Slowly like a well-crafted batting innings at the end of the summer it had come together. There was just one problem… it was over 1300 words long, more than double the word count! That I feel is the problem with writing about mathematics.
The issue is mathematics is not intrinsically beautiful or emotive. Now before I get chased out of the maths department with burning torches and pitch forks, I’m not saying maths is not beautiful. What I’m saying is it’s not the same as many other art forms such as dance, painting, music, film, poetry, which can all be captivating to people with no background in that area.
I could easily walk down to the NGV this summer (if I wasn’t busy with this project) and be blown away by the art of Andy Warhol without having any understanding of the way he explored the relationship between artistic expression, celebrity culture and advertisement through the new visual art movement called pop art (thanks Wikipedia).
Yet if a pictures worth a thousand words, I think a maths equation to a layman has got to be worth double. The beauty in writing mathematics is in taking someone on a lovely river cruise of understanding, carried by the current of logic and deductive reasoning until they arrive at a stunning destination they could have never dreamed of, with an insight into how they got there should they ever want to come again. It takes some time and words too.
It’s not impossible and to see it done to perfection look no further than Burkard Polster and Marty Ross’s archive of Maths Masters newspaper columns (http://www.qedcat.com/ ) or Burkard’s new Youtube Channel.
I guess all I’m saying is at this stage, I’m not experienced enough to take you on a beautiful little day trip to the breath taking world that is mathematics. But in the meantime if you want a little more of an expedition you can read my piece here (goo.gl/rqOBK6)
Jamieson Kaiser was one of the recipients of a 2015/16 AMSI Vacation Research Scholarship.