Found 1 comment on HN
xyzzyz · 2017-05-15 · Original thread
The other traditional problem with mathematics is terse and obscure notation.

It's only a problem if you are unfamiliar with the subject area, and if you are, you have very little chance to understand the paper or book anyway. Mathematics is just difficult, way more difficult than most other stuff people might be doing.

Here's an example: consider this classical paper[1], "Vector Bundles Over An Elliptic Curve" by M. Atiyah. The author is a well known and regarded mathematician, and the paper itself has around 1000 citations. Sections 1. and 2., "Generalities" and "Theorems A and B", just recall the basic notions and theorems that are absolutely necessary to have any grasp whatsoever as to what is going on in the paper.

If you know nothing about algebraic geometry, the classical way to learn these is Robin Hartshorne's famous textbook "Algebraic Geometry". It is famous for being both good, self-contained to a large degree, and having very well chosen exercises, but also for being quite terse and often difficult to follow. Here's an Amazon link[2]. You can look at the table of contents. To really fully understand these two sections from Atiyah's paper, you need to have very good understanding of Chapter 2. "Schemes", and at least first 5-6 sections of Chapter 3. "Cohomology". This is 200 pages of pretty terse mathematics. At a fast understanding pace of 4 pages a day, it will take you two months to even have some basic toolset to understand the Atiyah's paper.

But, if you try to understand the Harthshorne's textbook, you'll quickly find out that it also has some prerequisites of its own. Also, the "4 pages a day" pace is only possible if you've already spent 2-3 years learning how to learn mathematics.

I encourage anyone to try to understand even first 2-3 sentences of the "Generalities" section. Google and Wikipedia the unfamiliar terms, you can also try to look it up in Harthorne's textbook, or Vakil's lecture notes, or any other source. The notions used in these first 2-3 sentences are basic to anybody working in the field, and yet one needs to spend hours to fully understand these when starting from scratch.

Compare this to other famous paper from other field, "The Market for Lemons" by G. Akerlof[3]. This is also a very famous paper by a well regarded economist, who received a Nobel Memorial Prize In Economic Sciences for it. It is a much easier read, precisely because the economic sciences do not operate on nearly the same level of complexity as mathematics. Once you know what are some common sense notions like, supply, demand, utility etc., and some very basic calculus, you can easily follow the argument without too much training.

My point here is that it's not that it's difficult to read mathematics just because it uses terse and obscure notation. It all is just genuinely difficult and complex, and it is impossible to invent better notation that will transfer days and weeks worth of understanding straight to the reader's brain. I would love it to be the case, but then it would cease to be as fun and rewarding to really understand.

[1] - https://math.berkeley.edu/~nadler/atiyah.classification.pdf [2] - https://www.amazon.com/Algebraic-Geometry-Graduate-Texts-Mat... [3] - https://www.iei.liu.se/nek/730g83/artiklar/1.328833/AkerlofM...

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