Math Comm Blog

Magical Mathematics and Topological Barcodes

Two MAA awards for exemplary writing have been announced, and the prizes will be presented during the Joint Prize Session on Thursday, January 10, 2013, at the 2013 Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego, California. The Euler Book Prize goes to Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham for Magical Mathematics: The Mathematical Ideas That Animate Great Magic Tricks (Princeton University Press, 2012). The book presents a selection of entertaining magic tricks that are easy to perform, yet embody interesting mathematics. It provides beautifully clear, even elegant explanations, delving into ideas fundamental to mathematics, accompanied by engrossing excursions into the personalities and […]

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Best Writing on Mathematics

For the last three years, Princeton University Press has published annually a handy collection of previously published articles under the title The Best Writing on Mathematics. Edited again by Mircea Pitici, the 2012 volume is now available. The widely varying articles in these collections are of interest not only for the information they contain but also as useful models of expository writing in mathematics. As you read a selection, it is worthwhile reflecting on what you like and don’t like about the article and the way the author has chosen to present the material. You can start with the question […]

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A Poetic Route to Mathematics

Finding a way to connect mathematics with the interests of people who aren’t necessarily mathematically inclined is one of the challenges of speaking to a general audience. In a public lecture earlier this year at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, mathematician Katherine Socha chose a novel approach, using the lines and images of a poem by E.E. Cummings as starting points for various mathematical excursions. Her hope was to show that mathematics is more than just numbers and equations, just as poems are more than merely letters of the alphabet and words. Socha is the director of education policy […]

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Communicating Mathematics at the JMM

The Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego, January 9-12, 2013, will feature a number of sessions devoted to the communication of mathematics, starting with a minicourse and continuing with the MAA retiring presidential address, an invited paper session, and a contributed paper session. MAA Minicourse: Teaching and Assessing Writing and Presentations: Collaborative Development of Pedagogy Part A, 4:45–6:45 p.m., Wednesday, January 9; Part B, 3:30-5:30 p.m., Friday, January 11 Presenters: Susan Ruff, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Mia Minnes, University of California, San Diego; and Joel Lewis, University of Minnesota Description: In session 1 we break into groups to characterize “good” […]

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The Proper Abstract

Mathematicians rarely have the opportunity to present their research directly to a broad scientific audience. One of the few venues to do so is publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Published weekly and online, this prestigious journal features papers covering a wide range of disciplines, from applied mathematics and computer science to molecular biology and the social sciences. PNAS also has a strong media relations effort, which encourages wide dissemination of research results to the general public. Unfortunately, even when mathematicians do take advantage of this opportunity, they often fail to communicate well and end […]

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The Only Conundrum

One of the things that irritates me most when I’m reading, whether it’s a novel, a newspaper article, or a mathematics paper, is the misplaced “only.” If you write “Here we only calculate the position of two vertices” you probably mean “Here we calculate the position of only two vertices.” The word “only” is there to emphasize something, and it should be as close as possible to what you want to emphasize to be effective and to convey the desired meaning. As described in Mathematical Writing (MAA, 1989), newspaper copy editor Rosalie Stemer gives the following sequence of examples to […]

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Obvious Trouble

Terms such as “clearly,” “obviously,” and “it can easily be shown that” do not belong in the mathematical literature. Authors who use them (and editors who allow them) do a great disservice to their readers. Jokes about the mathematical abuse of these terms have been around for a long time, including the following translations of “clearly” and its kin: Clearly: I don’t want to write down all the “in-between” steps. Trivial: If I have to show you how to do this, you’re in the wrong class. Obviously: I hope you weren’t sleeping when we discussed this earlier, because I refuse […]

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Article Titles Make a Difference

When you go to the trouble of writing an article for publication, it’s worth spending some time thinking about and composing an appropriate title. The title is your first chance to engage prospective readers—to get their attention immediately. A poorly chosen title can mean a significantly smaller audience than your work might deserve. In Writing Mathematics Well: A Manual for Authors (MAA, 1987), Leonard Gillman advised: “Keep your title short and include key words to make it informative.” Striking the right balance between brevity and informativeness (while still attracting attention), however, can be harder than it sounds. Consider, for example, […]

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Paul Halmos on Writing Mathematics

As a mathematician, Paul R. Halmos (1916-2006) made fundamental contributions to probability theory, statistics, functional analysis, mathematical logic, and other areas of mathematics. He was also widely recognized as a masterly mathematical expositor. And he served as editor (1981-1985) of the American Mathematical Monthly. Halmos described his approach to writing in an essay published in the book How to Write Mathematics (American Mathematical Society, 1973). One paragraph presents the essence of the process: “The basic problem in writing mathematics is the same as in writing biology, writing a novel, or writing directions for assembling a harpsichord: the problem is to communicate an idea. To do […]

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The Mathematical Vocabulary Problem

The language of mathematics can throw up barriers to broad dissemination of information about mathematics. Mathematical statements are supposed to be precise, devoid of the ambiguities of ordinary speech. The language is unusually dense and relies heavily on a specialized vocabulary. The meaning and position of every word and symbol make a difference. Mathematician William Thurston once expressed the difference between reading mathematics and reading other subject matter in this way: “Mathematicians attach meaning to the exact phrasing of a sentence, much more than is conventional. The meanings of words are more precisely delimited. When I read articles or listen to speeches […]

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What is Math Comm

MAA Mathematical Communication ( is a developing collection of resources for engaging students in writing and speaking about mathematics. The site originated in the MIT Department of Mathematics and was expanded through support from an NSF grant.