Simple Words, Complicated Math

Part of the up-goer five. Image: Randall Munroe, xkcd.com. Click for full comic.

Part of the up-goer five. Image: Randall Munroe, xkcd.com. Click for full comic.

A couple years ago, xkcd described the Saturn V rocket (Up Goer 5) using only the thousand ten hundred most common English words. Of course, xkcd readers were eager to try it themselves, and geneticist Theo Sanderson created an online text editor for it. Thus tenhundredwordsofscience and upgoeryourphd were born. Both sites feature attempts by people from all sorts of branches of science to describe their work using only those thousand words.

Last month, David Roberts posted a proof of multiple cardinalities of infinity using only one-syllable words to the n-Category Café. Like the up-goer five challenge, the one-syllable exercise is part Oulipo and part math/science communication. The requirements are strictly enforced, leading to circumlocutions that would be clearer with a little more flexibility. (“The small round thing that passes through the sky every night as it moves around us” is not clearer than “moon,” but “moon” is 1809 on the list of most common words, so it doesn’t pass the up-goer 5 test.) You can get away with a little more with the one-syllable challenge, but it’s still tough.

The comments on the post and the related Google+ post have some good examples of mathematics written in one-syllable words or with other constraints: cartoon proofs, proofs in verse, proofs without the letter ‘e,’ and so on. I am also reminded of the (sadly dormant) @ProofinaTweet and @TinyProof Twitter accounts.

The constraints are fun to play with, and they’ve helped me think about the difference between using simple or short words and actually making a concept easier to understand. The Simple English Wikipedia is designed to have articles that are more accessible to children and adults who are learning English than the regular English Wikipedia articles are. There are guidelines, not rules, that help authors make their ideas easier for English learners. Authors are encouraged to use the 850 words on the Basic English list, but they shouldn’t adhere to that limitation if doing so results in more confusion. Flexibility is important for clarity.

When writing about math and science, people with technical backgrounds are often encouraged to avoid jargon, and in general, that’s sound advice. But sometimes, it’s better to explain the word homotopy and then use it in an article than to say “deformation of one thing into another thing without cutting it” twelve times. (By the way, that’s the Simple English Wikipedia explanation of homotopy, and it’s pretty good, isn’t it?) Jargon has a place not only in communication between experts in the same field but also in popular science writing. But it is a hurdle for readers, and I think it’s a good idea to approach it with caution. The up-goer five and one-syllable challenges feel like extreme versions of a no-jargon challenge. (OK, maybe not if you study stacks, sheaves, or schemes.)

After my recent post on higher homotopy groups, a jargon diet is probably a good idea. I didn’t participate in the up-goer 5 challenge, but the one-syllable just short words math challenge task sounds more interesting to me. I haven’t decided what proof I’m going to monosyllable-ize yet, but I will be participating. I’m interested to see what other people do with it as well. Feel free to share your contributions in the comments here, at the n-category Café, or on your own blog.

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One Response to Simple Words, Complicated Math

  1. Fractal Mathmath says:

    I did this a while back.
    I explained fractals (particularly the Cantor Ternary Set) xD
    http://mathematicalphilia.wordpress.com/2014/10/26/fractals-in-layman-terms/

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