Science‘s July issue has an interesting article about mathematician Byron Cook, who teamed up with artist Tauba Auerbach to create nine new mathematical symbols. The symbols were intended to make the notation for Cook’s work on a particular mathematical problem, called the “halting problem,” more intelligible:
“When I was giving lectures or talking to product developers, I needed to get a lot of information across quickly, and this was getting difficult,” says Cook. Things got even tougher when he began to write a book on the subject.
The article includes some interesting tidbits about the history of mathematical notation. Just try imagining math before the equals sign or zero, or ponder the confusing variation in notation styles for calculus, and you’ll see how important the development of new symbols is to abstract reasoning.
The new symbols (at left) aren’t likely to make aesthetes swoon with passion – they’re more dull than pretty. But I’m willing to admit that I might appreciate them more if I grasped the math that motivated their creation. Inventions that fulfill a much-needed purpose have a functional elegance that transcends prettiness. As David Bressoud comments in the piece, “It will be interesting to see if they get picked up beyond the computer science community.”
Thanks to John for the heads up on this one!