Math papers are hard to read because people invent their own syntax

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:

Obviously professional mathematicians need the power to continue to create new syntax. But should there be a syntax for creating syntax? I’m thinking of Lisp programming languages, that allow a programmer to invent new syntax, but enforces some rules along the way. One counter-argument, to applying such reasoning to math, is that vernacular languages, such as English, can be used to describe any syntax. But that is surely cheating: if math is to be a language, then the syntax for changing the syntax needs to be in the language.


That brings me to my last point: reading mathematics is much more difficult than conversing about mathematics in person. The reason for this is once again cultural.

Imagine you’re reading someone else’s program, and they’ve defined a number of functions like this (pardon the single-letter variable names; as long as one is willing to be vague I prefer single-letter variable names to “foo/bar/baz”).

def splice(L):

def join(*args):

def flip(x, y):

There are two parts to understanding how these functions work. The first part is that someone (or a code comment) explains to you in a high level what they do to an input. The second part is to weed out the finer details. These “finer details” are usually completely spelled out by the documentation, but it’s still a good practice to experiment with it yourself (there is always the possibility for bugs or unexpected features, of course).

In mathematics there is no unified documentation, just a collective understanding, scattered references, and spoken folk lore. You’re lucky if a textbook has a table of notation in the appendix. You are expected to derive the finer details and catch the errors yourself. Even if you are told the end result of a proposition, it is often followed by, “The proof is trivial.” This is the mathematician’s version of piping output to /dev/null, and literally translates to, “You’re expected to be able to write the proof yourself, and if you can’t then maybe you’re not ready to continue.”

Indeed, the opposite problems are familiar to a beginning programmer when they aren’t in a group of active programmers. Why is it that people give up or don’t enjoy programming? Is it because they have a hard time getting honest help from rudely abrupt moderators on help websites like stackoverflow? Is it because often when one wants to learn the basics, they are overloaded with the entirety of the documentation and the overwhelming resources of the internet and all its inhabitants? Is it because compiler errors are nonsensically exact, but very rarely helpful? Is it because when you learn it alone, you are bombarded with contradicting messages about what you should be doing and why (and often for the wrong reasons)?

All of these issues definitely occur, and I see them contribute to my students’ confusion in my introductory Python class all the time. They try to look on the web for information about how to solve a very basic problem, and they come back to me saying they were told it’s more secure to do it this way, or more efficient to do it this way, or that they need to import something called the “heapq module.” When really the goal is not to solve the problem in the best way possible or in the shortest amount of code, but to show them how to use the tools they already know about to construct a program that works. Without a guiding mentor it’s extremely easy to get lost in the jungle of people who think they know what’s best.

As far as I know there is no solution to this problem faced by the solo programming student (or the solo anything student). And so it stands for mathematics: without others doing mathematics with you, its very hard to identify your issues and see how to fix them.