What I Learned Doing My Fall 2019 Mathematics A To Z


Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

The most important thing I learned this time around was that I should have started a week or two earlier. Not that this should have been a Summer A to Z. It would be true for any season. It’s more that I started soliciting subjects for the first letters of the alphabet about two weeks ahead of publication. I didn’t miss a deadline this time around, and I didn’t hit the dread of starting an essay the day of publication. But the great thing about an A to Z sequence like this is being able to write well ahead of publication and I never got near that.

The Reading the Comics posts are already, necessarily, done close to publication. The only way to alter that is to make the Reading the Comics posts go even more than a week past the comics’ publication. Or lean on syndicated cartoonists to send me heads-ups. Anyway, if neither Reading the Comics nor A to Zs can give me breathing room, then what’s going wrong? So probably having topics picked as much as a month ahead of publication is the way I should go.

Picking topics is always the hardest part of writing things here. The A to Z gimmick makes it easy to get topics, though. The premise is both open and structured. I’m not sure I’d have as fruitful a response if I tossed out “explainer Fridays” or something and hoped people had ideas. A structured choice tends to be easier to make.

The biggest structural experiment this time around is that I put in two “recap” posts each week. These were little one- and two-paragraph things pointing to past A to Z essays. I’ve occasionally reblogged a piece, or done a post that points to old posts. Never systematically, though. Two recap posts a week seemed to work well enough. Some old stuff got new readers and nobody seemed upset. I even got those, at least, done comfortably ahead of deadline. When I finished a Thursday post I could feel like I was luxuriating in a long weekend, until I remembered the comics needed to be read.

Also, this now completes the sixth of my A to Z sequences. I’ve got enough that if I really wanted, I could drop to one new post a week, and do nothing but recaps the rest of the time. It would give me six months posting something every day. I have got nearly nine years’ worth of material here. Much of it is Reading the Comics posts, which date instantly. But the rest of the stuff in principle hasn’t aged, except in how my prose style has changed.

Another thing learned, and a bit of a surprise, was that I found a lot of fundamentals this time around. Things like “differential equations” or “Fourier series” or “Taylor series”. These are things that any mathematics major would know. These are even things that anyone a bit curious about mathematics might know. There is a place for very specific, technical terms. But some big-picture essays turn out to be comfortable too.

One of the things I wanted to write about and couldn’t was the Yang-Mills Equation. It would have taken too many words for me to write. If I’d used earlier essays as lemmas, to set up parts of this, I might have made it. In past A to Z sequences some essays built on one another. But by the time I was considering Y, the prerequisite letters had already been filled. This is an argument for soliciting for the whole alphabet from the start, rather than breaking it up into several requests for topics. But even then I’d have had to be planning Y, at a time when I know I’d be trying to think about D’s and E’s. I’m not sure that’s plausible. It does imply, as I started out thinking, that I need to work farther ahead of deadline anyway.

The versine is a fun little thing.

Author: Joseph Nebus

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

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