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!


  1. #1 Alex Besogonov
    August 27, 2009

    Formal logic desperately needs better notation. Have you ever tried to write letter “Aleph” 🙂

    NOBODY can write it correctly (unless they’re Jewish, of course).

  2. #2 William
    August 27, 2009

    Eh… those symbols don’t seem very different from the kind of variations of symbols that mathematicians create all the time to describe new ideas. See for example the list of symbols implemented in the typesetting language Latex.

  3. #3 Jessica Palmer
    August 27, 2009

    I don’t think the point is that they created new symbols, but that an artist was involved to make the symbols as “intuitive” as possible. That’s unusual – whether you think it was necessary/successful or not.

  4. #4 Katkinkate
    August 27, 2009

    I don’t think the middle one in the last row will last long like it is. I can see the shape at the bottom morphing into an eternity sign quite quickly. Especially if it’s going to be hand-written much.

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