Mathematics out loud
We are used to reading mathematics, we are also used to hearing it spoken in lectures. I can think of few examples of the natural way to combine these. Why do we never read mathematics out loud? There are some good reasons for this, much of the symbology of mathematics was developed as visual and so has only a bad translation into speech. More importantly mathematical reading is very rarely linear, we step back from a theorem to a definition only partly remembered, jump forward to look at the corollaries before diving into the proof.
Yet speaking words has a power that simply observing them in your head cannot. I tried for years to enjoy Paradise Lost yet got nothing from it, until I heard a comment from Phillip Pullman that it needed to be read out loud, and its beauty opened up to me. Why can’t mathematics benefit from this? We have our share of great writers, Donald Coxeter, Tim Gowers, Donald Knuth, Douglas Hofstadter, Rudy Rucker, indeed John Conway‘s papers are often created by writing down his spoken words. I am of course obliged to mention Lewis Carroll and Martin Gardner.
Many people, myself included, are interested in how art can be used as path into mathematics. The visual arts and music are well represented, even mathematical symbols have been considered for their aesthetic qualities. Writing feels relatively neglected, yet is intrinsic to the actual practice of mathematics. So I have a question:
What mathematics would you choose to read out loud?
I am especially interested in passages that work when read, even though they are written for a mathematical audience. The more esoteric the better.
If we can find some great ones, then perhaps we could even persuade someone with performance skills, who is also interested in mathematics, to read them out. Yes Vi Hart I am looking at you!
I don’t know about this, but I wonder… book reviews? I think that book reviews try to make the dense accessible, but also distill and inform. One of my favorites (which is snarky, and really mean, but pretty spot on) is http://www.ams.org/journals/bull/2003-40-01/S0273-0979-02-00970-9/S0273-0979-02-00970-9.pdf… I think hearing that aloud might be a powerful experience.
Although I know this is not quite what you were looking for. You wanted mathematics, and I don’t know if a book review would count as mathematics…
That is a classic review. It certainly fits into the broader mathematical culture. I think this quest has two aspects, one more general, thinking about spoken maths. A second more precise to find tracts of mathematics books doing nothing other than communicating mathematics that can still be read out loud and even have beauty.
I agree this needs to be done. I’m sure there must be some good translations of the ancient Indian math texts — I know how careful they were about composing their Sanskrit verses, so I’m betting the translations would be beautiful to listen to.
Also a great speaker of math: Socrates. I think it would be very cool to get a group of people together to read aloud book VII (http://www.constitution.org/pla/repub_07.htm).
This is a great idea. My students and I were talking about having a math soliloquy contest this year; they were thinking of writing their own monologues, but a recitation category could be fun, too!
I’ve always preferred spoken math for my research, both actively and passively. Actively, it allowed me to find better understanding of the problems I was stuck with — I had to articulate them! — passively as I learned from my colleagues. It was one of the reasons to start recording all our seminar talks on video.
I think a lot of the processes of creating mathematics get lost in how we write papers. The other classic example is the quick sketch. So many papers have none, but as soon as you start talking to the author some image is quickly drawn.
This is a bit more computer science than math, but Geoffrey Pullum’s ode to the Halting Problem written in Dr. Seuss form:
There are some other similarly done, for fun, math poetry out there, but this was the first one that came to my mind.
also, the lyrics to Jonathan Coulton’s “Mandebrot Set” song make for great entertaining reading.
All the great equations are great poems. Each great constant has all of mathematics packed into it, like the superbly compact seed, which contains billions of years of evolution. I could go on…
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There are the books by Lillian Lieber. I love The Education of T.C. Mits: What modern mathematics means to you. I wonder if my poem explaining a bit about complex numbers works for you as spoken math.