Laptops are not the problem…

I am going to disagree with Doron Zeilberger. Which is not something I often do. His latest piece describes the Shocking state of contemporary “Mathematics”. Its not the subject of the post (summed up in the title) that I am going to disagree with though. To my mind he nails it. Its a small detail. Yet something I think is important.

For those of you who do not know Zeilberger is one of the strongest proponents of the use of computers to do mathematics (which I wrote about here). So ironically I am going to complain about his use of computers.

The outline of his message is that mathematics has become divided into small specialities:

topological algebraic Lie theorists, algebraic analytic number theorists, pseudo-spectral graph theorists

and this problem is made worse by the fact that even general talks have no more than a few minutes of general history and motivation before leaping into the details that only a fellow expert on the analytic and algebraic topology of local Euclidian metrization of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifolds could understand.

This is all true. We have all been to too many such talks. He then starts to give the solutions:

One culprit is the pernicious laptop, it should be outlawed! It encourages the speaker to pass the cognitive speed-limit by orders of magnitude. Sure enough, the best invited talk was Michael Kiessling’s talk that used the ancient technology of overhead projector, and it would have been even better if he only used the blackboard

Can this be? Computers are not just the future of maths, but they are holding it back? Is the blackboard really better? It encourages the speaker to turn his back to the audience. It concentrates so much of the time on the creation of too short often illegible notes on the topic. It has many issues. In the hands of a good speaker a piece of chalk and a board however can illuminate and inspire. So too can the pernicious laptop. Yes it introduces different problems, but it also solves some. With any talk a good speaker uses the tools well, a bad one does not.  I suspect that Michael Kiessling’s talk was so good partly as he has taken the time to master the OHP, and thus uses it because of those skills. The laptop is the default today, so it is where the bad speakers end up.

To be fair the quote above does have one more line:

and it would have been better still if he didn’t use anything, just told us a story.

This is where all talks should begin. Once you have the story it can be useful in some cases to add material. It is then up to you to master the blackboard OHP or laptop to add to your story.

Why is this minor quible important? A central theme to his piece is the importance of communicating, putting ones (necessarily focused to some extent) research into the general setting and context. Just as computers are going to be key to actually doing mathematics, removing some of the tactical and technical hurdles (even Alain Connes agrees with this). Computers and the internet are not pernicious, they are giving new options for communication and intuition.  Blogs are a great example. Tim Gowers and Terry Tao are both giving precisely the strategic overview we need. Even the Opinions are really a blog (though they could do with an update, at least an RSS feed! I hear wordpress do some good software…)

So please Ekhad, talk to Doron. Tell him that you can do a lot more than mathematics!