College Math Teaching

September 22, 2013

Mathematics journal articles: terse but is it the author?

Filed under: advanced mathematics, point set topology, research — Tags: , — collegemathteaching @ 11:54 pm

Via Recursivity:

It’s a sad truth, but the mathematics research literature is very tough going for beginners. By “beginners” I mean bright high-school students, or university students, or beginning graduate students, or even professional mathematicians who are trained in an area different from the article he/she is trying to read. […]

Things like this permeate the mathematical literature. Take compactness, for example. Compactness is a marvelous tool that lets you deduce — usually in a non-constructive fashion — the existence of objects (particularly infinite ones) from the existence of finite “approximations”. Formally, compactness is the property that a collection of closed sets has a nonempty intersection if every finite subcollection has a nonempty intersection; alternatively, if every open cover has a finite subcover.

Now compactness is a topological property, so to use it, you really should say explicitly what the topological space is, and what the open and closed sets are. But mathematicians rarely, if ever, do that. In fact, they usually don’t specify anything at all about the setting; they just say “by the usual compactness argument” and move on. That’s great for experts, but not so great for beginners.

I really wonder who was the very first to take this particular lazy approach to mathematical exposition.

Hmmm, often it is the reviewer, referee or editor. They accept your paper, but make you take out some details (and, to be fair, add others)

A colleague and I are thinking of starting a journal called “The Journal of Omitted Details”.

But yes, this practice makes some mathematics very difficult for the non-expert to read.

Note: the usual definition of a compact set (given some topology) is: X is compact if, given any collection of open sets U_{\alpha} where X \subset \cup_{i \in \alpha} U_{\alpha},there exists a finite number of the U_{\alpha} where X \subset \cup^{k}_{i=1} U_{\alpha i}. That is, any open cover has a finite subcover. This is equivalent to saying that any infinite set of points in X has a limit point, and in a metric space this means that X is both closed and bounded.

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April 27, 2013

Unsolicited advise to young professors at heavy teaching load universities: Go to Research Conferences anyway!

This is coming to you from Ames, Iowa at the Spring American Mathematical Society Meeting. I am here to attend the sessions on the Topology of 3-dimensional manifolds.

Note: I try to go to conferences regularly; I have averaged about 1 conference a year. Sometimes, the conference is a MAA Mathfest conference. These ARE fun and refreshing. But sometimes (this year), I go to a research oriented conference.

I’ll speak for myself only.

Sometimes, these can be intimidating. Though many of the attendees are nice, cordial and polite, the fact is that many (ok, almost all of them) are either the best graduate students or among the finest researchers in the world. The big names who have proved the big theorems are here. They earn their living by doing cutting edge research and by guiding graduate students through their research; they are not spending hours and hours convincing students that \sqrt{x^2 + y^2} \ne x + y .

So, the talks can be tough. Sure, they do a good job, but remember that most of the audience is immersed in this stuff; they don’t have to review things like “normal surface theory” or “Haken manifold”.

Therefore, it is VERY easy to start lamenting (internally) “oh no, I am by far the dumbest one here”. That, in my case, IS true, but it is unimportant.
What I found is that, if I pay attention to what I can absorb, I can pick up a technique here and there, which I can then later use in my own research. In fact, just today, I picked up something that might help me with a problem that I am pondering.

Also, the atmosphere can be invigorating!

I happen to enjoy the conferences that are held on university campuses. There is nothing that gets my intellectual mood pumped up more than to hang around the campus of a division I research university. For me, there is nothing like it.

This conference
A few general remarks:
1. I didn’t realize how pretty Iowa State University is. I’d rank it along with the University of Tennessee as among the prettiest campuses that I’ve ever seen.

2. As far as the talks: one “big picture” technique that I’ve seen used again and again is the technique of: take an abstract set of objects (say, the Seifert Surfaces of a knot; say of minimal genus. Then to each, say, ambient isotopy class of Seifert Surface, assign a vertex of a graph or simplicial complex. Then group the vertices together either by a segment (in some settings) or a simplex (if, in one setting, the Seifert Surfaces admit disjoint representatives). Then one studies the complex or the graph.

In one of the talks (talking about essential closed surfaces in the complement of a knot), one assigned such things to the vertex of a graph (dendron actually) and set up an algorithm to search along such a graph; it turns out that is one starts near the top of this dendron, one gains the opportunity to prune lower branches of the group by doing the calculation near the top.

Sidenote
The weather couldn’t be better; I found time over lunch to do a 5.7 mile run near my hotel. The run was almost all on bike paths (albeit a “harder” surface than I’d like).

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