What I Learned Writing My All 2020 Mathematics A to Z


And now, finally, the close of the All 2020 Mathematics A-to-Z. You may see this as coming in after the close of 2020. I say, well, I’ve done that before. Things that come close to the end of the year are prone to that.

Color cartoon illustration of a coati in a beret and neckerchief, holding up a director's megaphone and looking over the Hollywood hills. The megaphone has the symbols + x (division obelus) and = on it. The Hollywood sign is, instead, the letters MATHEMATICS. In the background are spotlights, with several of them crossing so as to make the letters A and Z; one leg of the spotlights has 'TO' in it, so the art reads out, subtly, 'Mathematics A to Z'.
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 first important lesson was that I need to read exactly what topics I’ve written about before going ahead with a new week’s topic. I am not sorry, really, to have written about Tiling a second time. I’d rather it have been more than two years after the previous time. But I can make a little something out of that, too. I enjoy the second essay more. I don’t think that’s only because I like my most recent writing more. In the second version I looked at one of those fussy little specific questions. Particularly, what were the 20,426 tiles which Robert Berger found could create an aperiodic tiling? Tracking that down brought me to some fun new connections. And it let me write in a less foggy way. It’s always tempting to write the most generally true thing possible. But details and example cases are easier to understand. It’s surprising that no one in the history of knowledge has observed this difference before I did.

The second lesson was about work during a crisis. 2020 was the most stressful year of my life, a fact I hope remains true. I am aware that ritual, doing regular routine things, helps with stress. So a regular schedule of composing an essay on a mathematical topic was probably a good thing for me. Committing to the essay meant I had specific, attainable goals on clear, predictable deadlines. The catch is that I never got on top of the A-to-Z the way I hoped. My ideal for these is to have the essay written a week ahead of publication. Enough that I can sleep on it many times and amend it as needed. I never got close to this. I was running up close to deadline every week. If I were better managing all this I’d have gotten all November’s essays written before the election, and I didn’t, and that’s why I had to slip a week. I have always been a Sabbath-is-made-for-man sort, so don’t feel bad for slipping the week. But I would have liked to never had had a week when I was copy-editing a half-hour before publication.

It does all imply that I need to do what I resolve every year. Select topics sooner. Start research and drafts sooner. Let myself slip a deadline when that’s needed. But there is also the observation that apparently I can’t cut down the time I spend writing. The first several years of this, believe it or not, I wrote three essays a week for eight intense weeks. These would be six to eight hundred words each. Then I slacked off, doing two a week; these of course grew to a thousand, maybe 1200 words each. For 2020? One essay a week and more than one topped 2500 words. Yes, the traditional joke is that you write a lot because you don’t have the time to write briefly. But writing a lot takes time too.

The third lesson is about biographies. I wrote more biographical sketches for 2020’s than for any previous A-to-Z. Six, if I’m not miscounting, and that without counting historical pieces like Hilbert’s Problems or statistics. These biographies had enlightening minor discoveries. Here I mean learning that Fibonacci seems to have been much less important than I’d imagined. They’re great fun to write, and a different set of challenges from describing what a cohomology might be.

They’re challenging. In the pandemic particularly, as I can’t rely on the university library for a quick biography to read. Or to check journals of mathematical history, although I haven’t resorted to such actual information yet. But I’m also aware that I am not a historian or a real biographer. I have to balance drawing conclusions I can feel confident are not wrong with making declarations that are interesting to read. Still, I enjoy a focus on the culture of mathematics, and how mathematics interacts with the broader culture. It’s a piece mathematicians tend not to acknowledge; our field’s reputation for objective truth is a compelling romantic legend.

I do plan to write an A-to-Z for 2021. I suspect I’ll do it as this year, one per week. I don’t know when I’ll start, although it should be earlier than June. I’ll want to give myself more possible slip dates without running off the year. I will not be writing about tiling again. I do realize that, since I have seven A-to-Z sequences of 26 essays each, I could in principle fill half a year with writing by reblogging each, one a day. I’m not sure the point of such an exercise, but it would at least fill the content hole.

There is a side of me that would like to have a blogging gimmick that doesn’t commit me to 26 essays. I’ve tried a couple; they haven’t ever caught like this has. Maybe I could do something small and focused, like, ten terms from complex analysis. I’m open to suggestions.

When will I resume covering mathematical themes in comic strips? I don’t know; it’s the obvious thing to do while I wait for the A-to-Z cycle to start anew. It’s got some of the A-to-Z thrill, of writing about topics someone else chose. But I need some time to relax and play and I don’t know when I’ll be back to regular work.

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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