What I Learned Doing My 2018 Mathematics A To Z


I have a tradition at the end of an A To Z sequence of looking back and considering what I learned doing it. Sometimes this is mathematics I’ve learned. At the risk of spoiling the magic, I don’t know as much as I present myself as knowing. I’ll often take an essay topic and study up before writing, and hope that I look competent enough that nobody seriously questions me. Yes, I thought I was a pretty good student journalist back in the day, and harbored fantasies of doing that for a career. This before I went on to fantasize about doing mathematics. Still; I also learn things about writing in doing a big writing project like this. And now I’ve had some breathing space to sit and think. I can try finding out what I thought.

Cartoon of a thinking coati (it's a raccoon-like animal from Latin America); beside him are spelled out on Scrabble titles, 'MATHEMATICS A TO Z', on a starry background. Various arithmetic symbols are constellations in the background.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Newshounds, Something Happens, and Infinity Refugees. His current project is Projection Edge. And you can get Projection Edge six months ahead of public publication by subscribing to his Patreon. And he’s on Twitter as @Newshoundscomic.

The major differences between this A To Z and those of past years was scheduling. Through 2017 I’d done A To Z’s posted three days a week. This is a thrilling schedule. It makes it easy to have full weeks, even full months, with some original posting every day. I can tell myself that the number of posts doesn’t matter. It’s the quality that does. It doesn’t work. I tend toward compulsive behavior and a-post-a-day is so gratifying.

But I also knew that the last quarter of 2018 would be busy and I had to cut something down. Some of that is Reading the Comics posts. Including pictures of each comic I discuss adds considerably to the production time. This is not least because I feel I can’t reasonably claim Fair Use of the comics without writing something of more substance. Moving files around and writing alt-text for the images also takes time. But the time can be worth it. Doing that has sometimes made me think longer, or even better, about the comics.

So switching to two-a-week seemed the thing to do. It would spread the A To Z over three months, but that’s not bad. I figured to prove out whether that schedule worked. If I could find one that let me do possibly several A To Z sequences in a year that’d be wonderful too. I’ve only done that once, so far, in 2016, but I think the exercise is always good if exhausting for me.

This completely failed to save time. I had fewer things to write, but somehow, I only wrote more. All my writing’s getting longer as I go on, yes. Last year my average post exceeded a thousand words, though, and that counts Reading the Comics and pointers to things I’ve been reading and all that. There’s a similar steady expansion going on in my humor blog. Possibly having more time between essays encouraged me to write longer for each. Work famously expands to fit the time available, and having as many as three full days to write, rather than one, might be dangerous. For the first time in an A To Z I never got ahead of myself. I would, at best, be researching and making notes for the next essay while waiting for the current one to post. There’s value in dangerous writing. But I don’t like that as a habit.

Another scheduling change was in how I took topic suggestions. In the past I’d thrown the whole alphabet open at once. This time I broke the alphabet into a couple of pieces, and asked for about one-quarter at a time. This, overall, worked. For one, it gave me more chances to talk about the A To Z. Talking about something is one of the non-annoying ways to advertise a thing. And I think it helped a greater variety of people suggest topics. I did have more collisions this time around, letters for which several people suggested different ideas. That’s a happy situation to have. Thinking of what to write is the hard part; going on about a topic someone else named? That’s easy. So I’ll certainly keep that.

I did write some about maybe doing supplementary pieces, based on topics I didn’t use for the main line. Might yet do that, perhaps under rules where I do one a week, or limit myself to 700 words, or something like that. It might be worth doing a couple just to have a buffer against weeks that there’s no comic strips worth discussing. Or to head off gaps next time around, although that would spoil some letters for people.

Also I completely ran out of ‘X’ topics, and went with the 90s alternative of “extreme”. There are plenty of “extreme” things in mathematics I could write about. But that feels a bit chintzy to do too often.

This time around I changed focus on many of my essays. It wasn’t a conscious thing, not to start with. But I got to writing more about the meaning and significance and cultural import of topics, rather than definitions or descriptions of the use of things. This is a natural direction to go for a topic like Fermat’s Last Theorem, or the Infinite Monkey Theorem, or mathematics jokes. I liked the way those pieces turned out, though, and tried doing more of it. This likely helped the essays grow so long. Context demands space, after all. And more thinking. Thinking’s the hard part of writing, but it’s also fun, because when you’re thinking about a subject you aren’t typing any specific words.

But it’s probably a worthwhile shift. For a pop mathematics blog to describe what makes something a “smooth” function is all right. But it’s not a story unless it says why we should care. That’s more about context than about definitions, which anyone could get by typing ‘mathworld smooth’ into DuckDuckGo. For all the trouble this causes me, it’s the way to go.

Every good lesson carries its opposite along, though. One of the requests this time around was about Lord Kelvin. There’s no end of things you can write about him: he did important work in basically every field of science and mathematics as the 19th century knew it. It’s easy to start writing about his work and never stop. I did the opposite, taking one tiny and often-overlooked piece and focusing on that. I’m not sure it alone would convince anyone of Kelvin’s exhaustive greatness. But I don’t imagine anyone interested in reading a single essay on Kelvin would never read a second one. It seems to me a couple narrow-focus essays help in that context. Seeing more of one detail gives scale to the big picture.

I’ve done just the one A To Z the last two years. There’s surely an optimal rate for doing these. The sequences are usually good for my readership. My experience, tracking monthly readership figures, suggests that just posting more often is good for my readership. They’re also the thing I write that most directly solicits reader responses. They’re also exhausting. The last several letters are always a challenge. The weeks after a sequence is completed I collapse into a little recuperative bubble. So I want to do these as much as I can without burning out on the idea. Also without overloading Thomas Dye, who’s been so good as to make the snappy banners for these pieces. He has his own projects, including the web comic Projection Edge, to worry about. More than once a year is probably sustainable. I may also want to stack this with hosting the Playful Mathematics Education Blog Carnival again, if I’m able to this year.

Deep down, though, I think the best moment of my Fall 2018 A To Z might have been in the first. I wrote about asymptotes and realized I could put in ordinary words why they were a thing worth having. If I could have three insights like that a year I’d be a great mathematics writer.

I put a roster of things written up in this A To Z at this page. The Summer 2015 A To Z essays should be here. The essays from the Leap Day 2016 A To Z essays are at this link. The essays from the End 2016 A To Z essays are here. Those from the Summer 2017 A To Z sequence are at this link. And I should keep using the A-To-Z tag, so all of these, and any future A To Z essays, should appear at this link. Thank you for reading along.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

2 thoughts on “What I Learned Doing My 2018 Mathematics A To Z”

  1. Thank you for this interesting and candid post. Don’t you sometimes find that by the very act of trying to explain a difficult subject, that you come to understand it better yourself? I know from my blogging experience that I do.

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    1. I do have that experience, yes. Although what seems to strike me more is when I realize that I don’t understand the simple things. Like, I know the definition and the uses well enough I could be shaken out of a sound sleep and still do something useful. But why the simple thing is that and not something else? Too often in these essays I’ll get about four paragraphs and realize I’ve been doing nothing but defining terms. If I have the time I can throw that all out and try to re-start and that usually gets me closer to knowing something about the topic. … Really the biggest of those this time around was on the asymptote. That one makes me feel like I finally understand a concept, and it only took me three decades of knowing it.

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