Introduction to Galois Theory | Coursera

Introduction to Galois Theory by Ekaterina AmerikEkaterina Amerik(Coursera)
A very beautiful classical theory on field extensions of a certain type (Galois extensions) initiated by Galois in the 19th century. Explains, in particular, why it is not possible to solve an equation of degree 5 or more in the same way as we solve quadratic or cubic equations. You will learn to compute Galois groups and (before that) study the properties of various field extensions. We first shall survey the basic notions and properties of field extensions: algebraic, transcendental, finite field extensions, degree of an extension, algebraic closure, decomposition field of a polynomial. Then we shall do a bit of commutative algebra (finite algebras over a field, base change via tensor product) and apply this to study the notion of separability in some detail. After that we shall discuss Galois extensions and Galois correspondence and give many examples (cyclotomic extensions, finite fields, Kummer extensions, Artin-Schreier extensions, etc.). We shall address the question of solvability of equations by radicals (Abel theorem). We shall also try to explain the relation to representations and to topological coverings. Finally, we shall briefly discuss extensions of rings (integral elemets, norms, traces, etc.) and explain how to use the reduction modulo primes to compute Galois groups.

I’ve been watching MOOCs for several years and this is one of the few I’ve come across that covers some more advanced mathematical topics. I’m curious to see how it turns out and what type of interest/results it returns.

It’s being offered by National Research University – Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Russia.

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Peter Webb’s A Course in Finite Group Representation Theory

A Course in Finite Group Representation Theory by Peter WebbPeter Webb(math.umn.edu)
Download a pre-publication version of the book which will be published by Cambridge University Press. The book arises from notes of courses taught at the second year graduate level at the University of Minnesota and is suitable to accompany study at that level.

“Why should we want to know about representations over rings that are not fields of characteristic zero? It is because they arise in many parts of mathematics. Group representations appear any time we have a group of symmetries where there is some linear structure present, over some commutative ring. That ring need not be a field of characteristic zero.

Here are some examples.

  • […]
  • In the theory of error-correcting codes many important codes have a non-trivial symmetry group and are vector spaces over a finite field, thereby providing a representation of the group over that field.”
Peter Webb, February 23, 2016, Professor of Mathematics, University of Minnesota
in A Course in Finite Group Representation Theory to be published soon by Cambridge University Press

 

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The Math That Connects Pluto to DNA — NOVA Next | PBS

The Math That Connects Pluto to DNA by Alex RileyAlex Riley(NOVA Next | PBS)
How a mathematical breakthrough from the 1960s now powers everything from spacecraft to cell phones.

Concurrent with the recent Pluto fly by, Alex Riley has a great popular science article on PBS that helps put the application of information theory and biology into perspective for the common person. Like a science version of “The Princess Bride”, this story has a little bit of everything that could be good and entertaining: information theory, biology, DNA, Reed-Solomon codes, fossils, interplanetary exploration, mathematics, music, genetics, computers, and even paleontology. Fans of Big History are sure to love the interconnections presented here.

Reed-Solomon codes correct for common transmission errors, including missing pixels (white), false signals (black), and paused transmissions (the white stripe).
Reed-Solomon codes correct for common transmission errors, including missing pixels (white), false signals (black), and paused transmissions (the white stripe).
Microscopic view of glass DNA storage beads
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Category Theory Anyone?

I'm putting together a study group for an introduction to category theory. Who wants to join me?

I’m putting together a study group for an introduction to category theory. Who wants to join me?

Usually in the Fall and Winter, I’m concentrating on studying some semblance of abstract mathematics with a group of 20-30 kamikaze amateurs under the apt tutelage of Dr. Michael Miller through UCLA Extension. Since he doesn’t offer any classes in the Spring or Summer and we haven’t managed to talk Terence Tao into offering something interesting à la Leonard Susskind, we’re all at a loss for what to do with some of our time.

A small cohort of regulars from Miller’s class has recently taken up plowing through Howard Georgi’s Lie Algebras and Particle Physics. Though this seems very diverting to me given our work on Lie groups and algebras in the Fall and Winter, I don’t see any direct or exciting applications to anything more immediate.

Why Not Try Category Theory?

Since the death of Grothendieck I have seen a growing number of references to the area of category theory from a variety of different fronts.

Most notably, for the past year I’ve been more closely following John Baez’s Azimuth Blog which has frequent posts relating to category theory with applications I can directly use in various areas. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend his recent workshop at NIMBioS on Information and Entropy in Biological Systems, which apparently means I missed meeting Tom Leinster who recently released the textbook Basic Category Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2014). [I was already never going to forgive myself after I missed the workshop, but this fact now seems to be additional salt in the wound.]

The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was my serendipitously stumbling across Ilyas Khan‘s excellent post “Category Theory – the bedrock of mathematics?” while doing a Google image search for something entirely unrelated to anything remotely similar to mathematics. His discussion and the breadth of links to interesting and intriguing papers and articles within it and several colleagues thanking me for posting about it have finally forced my hand. (I also find myself wishing that he would write on a more formal basis more frequently.)

So over the past week or so, I’ve done some basic subject area searching, and I’ve picked up David I. Spivak’s book Category Theory for the Sciences (The MIT Press, 2014) to begin plowing through it.

Anyone Care to Join Me?

If you’re going to get lost and confused in the high weeds, you may as well have company, right?

Chris Aldrich

 

Category Theory, Anyone?
Category Theory, Anyone?

Since doing abstract math is always more fun with companions, and I know there are several out there who might be interested in some of the areas which category theory touches on, why don’t you join in?  Over the coming months of Summer, let’s plot a course through the subject.  I’ll suggest Spivak’s book first as it seems to be one of the most basic as well as the broadest out there in terms of applications. (There are also free copies of versions available through arXiv and MIT.) It doesn’t have a huge list of prerequisites either, so a broader category of people might be able to join in as well.

We can have occasional weekly or bi-weekly “meetings” via internet using something like Google Hangouts, Skype, or ooVoo to discuss problems and help each other out as necessary.  Ideally those who join will spend at least 3 hours a week, if not more reading the text and working through problems. Following Spivak, we might try dipping into Leinster, Awody, or Mac Lane.

 

 

From the author of Category Theory for the Sciences:

This book is designed to be read by scientists and other people. It has very few mathematical prerequisites; for example, it doesn’t require calculus, linear algebra, or statistics. It starts by reintroducing the basics: What is a set? What is a function between sets?

That said, having a teacher or resident expert will be very helpful. Category theory is a “paradigm shift”—it’s a new way of looking at things. If you progress past the first few chapters, you’ll see that it’s a language for having very big thoughts and making unusually deep analogies.

To make real progress in this book (unless you’re used to reading university-level math books on your own) it will be useful to periodically check your understanding with someone who has some training in the subject. Seek out a math grad student or even a Haskell expert to help you. A growing number of people are learning basic category theory.

In order to really learn this material, a formal teacher or a professor would be best. Encourage your local university math department to offer a course in Category Theory for the Sciences. I can recommend this in good faith, because I went to special efforts to make this book available for free online. An old version of the book exists on the math arXiv, and a new MIT Press-edited version exists in HTML form on their website (see URLs below). That said, the print version, available here on Amazon and elsewhere, is much easier to read, if you want to get serious and you can afford it.

This book contains about 300 exercises and solutions. For those who wish to teach a course in the subject, there are 193 additional exercises and solutions behind a professors-only wall on the MIT Press website (see URL below). You simply have to request access.

To everyone: I hope you enjoy the book, and get a lot out of it!

Old version: arxiv.org/abs/1302.6946
HTML version: mitpress.mit.edu/books/category-theory-sciences

David Spivak, mathematician
in Description of Category Theory for the Sciences on Amazon.com

 

References

Awody, Steve. Category Theory (Oxford Logic Guides, #52). (Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition, 2010)

Lawvere, F. William & Schanuel, Stephen H. Conceptual Mathematics: A First Introduction to Categories. (Cambridge University Press, 2nd Edition, 2009)

Leinster, Tom. Basic Category Theory (Cambridge Studies in Advanced Mathematics, #143). (Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Mac Lane, Saunders. Categories for the Working Mathematician (Graduate Texts in Mathematics, #5). (Springer, 2nd Edition, 1998)

Spivak, David I. Category Theory for the Sciences. (The MIT Press, 2014)

 

Why write a new textbook on Category Theory, when we already have Mac Lane’s ‘Categories for the Working Mathematician’? Simply put, because Mac Lane’s book is for the working (and aspiring) mathematician. What is needed now, after 30 years of spreading into various other disciplines and places in the curriculum, is a book for everyone else.

Steve Awody, mathematician
on page iv of Category Theory (Oxford Logic Guides, #52). (Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition, 2010)

If you’d like to join us, please leave a comment below and be sure to include your email address in the comment form so we can touch base regarding details.

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Category Theory – the bedrock of mathematics? via Ilyas Khan | LinkedIn

Category Theory - the bedrock of mathematics ? by Ilyas KhanIlyas Khan(LinkedIn Pulse)

Category theory looks set to become the dominant foundational basis for all mathematics. It could, in fact, already have achieved that status through stealth.

Beauty, even in Maths, can exist in the eye of the beholder. That might sound a little surprising, when, after all, what could be more objective than mathematics when thinking about truth, and what, therefore, could be more natural than for beauty and goodness, the twin accomplices to truth, to be co-joined ?

In the 70 odd years since Samuel Eilenberg and Saunders Mac Lane published their now infamous paper “A General Theory of Natural Equivalences“, the pursuit of maths by professionals (I use here the reference point definition of Michael Harris – see his recent publication “Mathematics without Apologies“) has become ever more specialised. I, for one, don’t doubt cross disciplinary excellence is alive and sometimes robustly so, but the industrially specialised silos that now create, produce and then sustain academic tenure are formidable within the community of mathematicians.

Beauty, in the purest sense, does not need to be captured in a definition but recognised through intuition. Whether we take our inspiration from Hardy or Dirac, or whether we experience a gorgeous thrill when encountering an austere proof that may have been confronted thousands of times before, the confluence of simplicity and beauty in maths may well be one of the few remaining places where the commonality of the “eye” across a spectrum of different beholders remains at its strongest.

Neither Eilenberg nor Mac Lane could have thought that Category theory, which was their attempt to link topology and algebra, would become so pervasive or so foundational in its influence when they completed and submitted their paper in those dark days of WW 2. But then neither could Cantor, have dreamt about his work on Set theory being adopted as the central pillar of “modern” mathematics so soon after his death. Under attack from establishment figures such as Kronecker during his lifetime, Cantor would not have believed that set theory would become the central edifice around which so much would be constructed.

Of course that is exactly what has happened. Set theory and the ascending magnitude of infinities that were unleashed through the crack in the door that was represented by Cantor’s diagonal conquered all before them.

Until now, that is.

In an article in Science News, Julie Rehmeyer describes Category Theory as “perhaps the most abstract area of all mathematics” and “where math is the abstraction of the real world, category theory is an abstraction of mathematics”.

Slowly, without fanfare, and with an alliance built with the emergent post transistor age discipline of computer science, Category theory looks set to become the dominant foundational basis for all mathematics. It could, in fact, already have achieved that status through stealth. After all, if sets are merely an example of a category, they become suborned without question or query. One might even use the description ‘subsumed’.

There is, in parallel, a wide ranging discussion in mathematics about the so called Univalent Foundation that is most widely associated with Voevodsky which is not the same. The text book produced for the year long univalence programme iniated at the IAS that was completed in 2013 Homotopy type theory – Univalent Foundations Programme states:

“The univalence ax-iom implies, in particular, that isomorphic structures can be identified, a principle that mathematicians have been happily using on workdays, despite its incompatibility with the “official”doctrines of conventional foundations..”

before going on to present the revelatory exposition that Univalent Foundations are the real unifying binding agent around mathematics.

I prefer to think of Voevodsky’s agenda as being narrower in many crucial respects than Category Theory, although both owe a huge amount to the over-arching reach of computational advances made through the mechanical aid proffered through the development of computers, particularly if one shares Voevodsky’s view that proofs will eventually have to be subject to mechanical confirmation.

In contrast, the journey, post Russell, for type theory based clarificatory approaches to formal logic continues in various ways, but Category theory brings a unifying effort to the whole of mathematics that had to wait almost two decades after Eilenberg and Mac Lane’s paper when a then virtually unknown mathematician, William Lawvere published his now much vaunted “An Elementary Theory of the Category of Sets” in 1964. This paper, and the revolutionary work of Grothendieck (see below) brought about a depth and breadth of work which created the environment from which Category Theory emerged through the subsequent decades until the early 2000’s.

Lawvere’s work has, at times, been seen as an attempt to simply re-work set theory in Category theoretic terms. This limitation is no longer prevalent, indeed the most recent biographical reviews of Grothendieck, following his death, assume that the unificatory expedient that is the essential feature of Category theory (and I should say here not just ETCS) is taken for granted, axiomatic, even. Grothendieck eventually went much further than defining Category theory in set theoretic terms, with both Algebraic Topology and Mathematical Physics being fields that now could not be approached without a foundational setting that is Category theory. The early language and notation of Category Theory where categories ‘C’ are described essentially as sets whose members satisfy the conditions of composition, morphism and identity eventually gave way post Lawvere and then Lambek to a systematic adoption of the approach we now see where any and all deductive systems can be turned into categories. Most standard histories give due credit to Eilenberg and Mac Lane as well as Lawvere (and sometimes Cartan), but it is Grothendieck’s ‘Sur quelques points d’algebre homologique’ in 1957 that is now seen as the real ground breaker.

My own pathway to Category theory has been via my interest in Lie Groups, and more broadly, in Quantum Computing, and it was only by accident (the best things really are those that come about by accident !) that I decided I had better learn the language of Category theory when I found Lawvere’s paper misleadingly familiar but annoyingly distant when, in common with most people, I assumed that my working knowledge of notation in logic and in set theory would map smoothly across to Category theory. That, of course, is not the case, and it was only after I gained some grounding in this new language that I realised just how and why Category theory has an impact far beyond computer science. It is this journey that also brings me face to face with a growing appreciation of the natural intersection between Category theory and a Wittgensteinian approach to the Philosophy of Mathematics. Wittgenstein’s disdain for Cantor is well documented (this short note is not an attempt to justify, using Category theory, a Wittgensteinian criticism of set theory). More specifically however, it was Abramsky and Coecke’s “Categorical Quantum Mechanics” that helped me to discern more carefully the links between Category Theory and Quantum Computing. They describe Category Theory as the ‘language of modern structural mathematics’ and use it as the tool for building a mathematical representation of quantum processes, and their paper is a thought provoking nudge in the ribs for anyone who is trying to make sense of the current noise that surrounds Quantum mechanics.

Awodey and Spivak are the two most impressive contemporary mathematicians currently working on Category Theory in my view, and whilst it is asking for trouble to choose one or two selected works as exemplars of their approach, I would have to say that Spivak’s book on Category Theory for the Sciences is the standout work of recent times  (incidentally the section in this book on ‘aspects’ bears close scrutiny with Wittgenstein’s well known work on ‘family resemblances’).

Awodey’s 2003 paper is as good a recent balance between a mathematical and philosophical exposition of the importance of category theory as exists  whilst his textbook is often referred to as the standard entry point for working mathematicians.

Going back to beauty, which is how I started this short note. Barry Mazur wrote an article in memory of Saunders Mac Lane titled ‘When is one thing equal to another‘ which is a gem of rare beauty, and the actual catalyst for this short note. If you read only one document in the links from this article, then I hope it is Mazur’s paper.

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Why Aren’t Math Textbooks More Straightforward?

Math textbooks often seem difficult, obtuse, and often incomprehensible. Here are some hints and tips for making the situation better for all students.

Some General Advice for Math Students of All Ages

I recently saw the question “Why aren’t math textbooks more straightforward?” on Quora.

In fact, I would argue that most math textbooks are very straightforward!

The real issue most students are experiencing is one of relativity and experience.  Mathematics is an increasingly sophisticated, cumulative, and more complicated topic the longer you study it. Fortunately, over time, it also becomes easier, more interesting, and intriguingly more beautiful.

As an example of what we’re looking at and what most students are up against, let’s take the topic of algebra. Typically in the United States one might take introductory algebra in eighth grade before taking algebra II in ninth or tenth grade. (For our immediate purposes, here I’m discounting the potential existence of a common pre-algebra course that some middle schools, high schools, and even colleges offer.)  Later on in college, one will exercise one’s algebra muscles in calculus and may eventually get to a course called abstract algebra as an upper-level undergraduate (in their junior or senior years).  Most standard undergraduate abstract algebra textbooks will cover ALL of the material that was in your basic algebra I and algebra II texts in about four pages and simply assume you just know the rest! Naturally, if you started out with the abstract algebra textbook in eighth grade, you’d very likely be COMPLETELY lost. This is because the abstract algebra textbook is assuming that you’ve got some significant prior background in mathematics (what is often referred to in the introduction to far more than one mathematics textbook as “mathematical sophistication”, though this phrase also implicitly assumes knowledge of what a proof is, what it entails, how it works, and how to actually write one).

Following the undergraduate abstract algebra textbook there’s even an additional graduate level course (or four) on abstract algebra (or advanced subtopics like group theory, ring theory, field theory, and Galois theory) that goes into even more depth and subtlety than the undergraduate course; the book for this presumes you’ve mastered the undergraduate text and goes on faster and further.

A Weightlifting Analogy

To analogize things to something more common, suppose you wanted to become an Olympic level weightlifter.  You’re not going to go into the gym on day one and snatch and then clean & jerk 473kg! You’re going to start out with a tiny fraction of that weight and practice repeatedly for years slowly building up your ability to lift bigger and bigger weights. More likely than not, you’ll also very likely do some cross-training by running, swimming, and even lifting other weights to strengthen your legs, shoulder, stomach, and back.  All of this work may eventually lead you to to win the gold medal in the Olympics, but sooner or later someone will come along and break your world record.

Mathematics is certainly no different: one starts out small and with lots of work and practice over time, one slowly but surely ascends the rigors of problems put before them to become better mathematicians. Often one takes other courses like physics, biology, and even engineering courses that provide “cross-training.”  Usually when one is having issues in a math class it’s because they’re either somehow missing something that should have come before or because they didn’t practice enough in their prior classwork to really understand all the concepts and their subtleties.  As an example, the new material in common calculus textbooks is actually very minimal – the first step in most problems is the only actual calculus and the following 10 steps are just practicing one’s algebra skills. It’s usually in carrying out the algebra that one makes more mistakes than in the actual calculus.

Often at the lower levels of grade-school mathematics, some students can manage to just read a few examples and just seem to “get” the answers without really doing a real “work out.” Eventually they’ll come to a point at which they hit a wall or begin having trouble, and usually it comes as the result of not actually practicing their craft.  One couldn’t become an Olympic weightlifter by reading books about weightlifting, they need to actually get in the gym and workout/practice. (Of course, one of the places this analogy breaks down is that weightlifting training is very linear and doesn’t allow one to “skip around” the way one could potentially in a mathematics curriculum.)

I’m reminded of a quote by mathematician Pierre Anton Grillet: “…algebra is like French pastry: wonderful, but cannot be learned without putting one’s hands to the dough.” It is one of the most beautiful expressions of the recurring sentiment written by almost every author into the preface of nearly every mathematics text at or above the level of calculus. They all exhort their students to actually put pencil to paper and work through the logic of their arguments and the exercises to learn the material and gain some valuable experience.  I’m sure that most mathematics professors will assure you that in the end, only a tiny fraction of their students actually do so. Some of the issue is that these exhortations only come in textbooks traditionally read at the advanced undergraduate level, when they should begin in the second grade.

Patissiere puts their hands to a pie crust in a rustic kitchen
“Algebra is like French Pastry: wonderful, but cannot be learned without putting one’s hands to the dough.” -Pierre Anton Grillet

“It’s Easy to See”

A common phrase in almost every advanced math textbook on the planet is the justification, “It’s easy to see.” The phrase, and those like it, should be a watchword for students to immediately be on their guard!  The phrase is commonly used in proofs, discussions, conversations, and lectures in which an author or teacher may skip one or more steps which she feels should be obvious to her audience, but which, in fact, are far more commonly not obvious.

It’s become so cliche that some authors actually mention specifically in their prefaces that they vow not to use the phrase, but if they do so, they usually let slip some other euphemism that is its equivalent.

The problem with the phrase is that everyone, by force of their own circumstances and history, will view it completely differently.  A step that is easy for someone with a Ph.D. who specialized in field theory to “see” may be totally incomprehensible for a beginning student of algebra I in the same way that steps that were easy for Girgory Perelman to see in his proof of the Poincaré conjecture were likewise completely incomprehensible for teams of multiple tenured research professors of mathematics to see. (cross reference: The Poincaré Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe by Donal O’Shea (Walker & Co., 2007))

How to Actively Read a Math Text

The Problem

So how are students to proceed? It will certainly help to see a broader road map of what lies ahead and what the expected changes in terrain will look like. It will also help greatly if students have a better idea how to approach mathematics for themselves and even by themselves in many cases.

In my opinion, the most common disconnect occurs somewhere between high school mathematics and early college mathematics (usually a calculus sequence, linear algebra) and then again between linear algebra/differential equations (areas which usually have discussion followed by examples and then crank-out problems) and higher abstract mathematical areas like analysis, abstract algebra, topology (areas in which the definition-theorem-proof cycle of writing is more common and seemingly more incomprehensible to many).

The first big issue in early college mathematics is the increased speed at which college courses move. Students used to a slower high school pace where the teachers are usually teaching to the middle or lower end of the class get caught unaware as their college professors teach to the higher ability students and aren’t as afraid to leave the lower end of the spectrum behind. Just like high school athletes are expected to step up their game when they make the transition to college and similarly college athletes who go pro, mathematics students should realize they’re expected to step up their game at the appropriate times.

Often math students (and really any student of any subject) relies on the teacher assigning readings or problems from their book rather than excersizing their curiosity to more avidly and broadly explore the material on their own.  If they can take the guidance of their teacher as well as that of the individual authors of books, they may make it much further on their own.  High school teachers often skip sections of textbooks for time, but students should realize that there is profitable and interesting material that they’re skipping.  Why not go and read it on their own?

Earlier I mentioned that an average undergraduate abstract algebra textbook might cover the totality of a high school algebra textbook in about three pages.  What does this mean for upper level mathematics students?  It almost always means that the density of material in these books is far greater than that of their earlier textbooks.  How is this density arrived at?  Authors of advanced textbooks leave out far more than they’re able to put in, otherwise their 300 page textbooks, if written at the same basic level as those that came before would be much more ponderous 1000+ page textbooks.  What are they leaving out?  Often they’re leaving out lots of what might be useful discussion, but more often, they’re leaving out lots of worked out examples. For example, a high school text will present a definition or concept and then give three or more illustrations or examples of problems relating to the concept.  The exercises will then give dozens of additional drill problems to beat the concept to death.  This type of presentation usually continues up to the level of calculus where one often sees massive tomes in the 800+ page length. Math texts after this point generally don’t go much over 300 pages as a rule, and it’s primarily because they’re leaving the examples out of the proverbial equation.

The Solution

How does one combat this issue?  Students need to more actively think back to the math they’ve taken previously and come up with their own simple examples of problems, and work though them on their own.  Just because the book doesn’t give lots of examples doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

In fact, many textbooks are actually presenting examples, they’re just hiding them with very subtle textual hints. Often in the presentation of a concept, the author will leave out one or more steps in a proof or example and hint to the student that they should work through the steps themselves. (Phrases like: “we leave it to the reader to verify” or “see example 2.”) Sometimes this hint comes in the form of that dreaded phrase, “It’s easy to see.” When presented with these hints, it is incumbent (or some students may prefer the word encumbering) on the student to think through the missing steps or provide the missing material themselves.

While reading mathematics, students should not only be reading the words and following the steps, but they should actively be working their way through all of the steps (missing or not) in each of the examples or proofs provided. They must read their math books with pencil and paper in hand instead of the usual format of reading their math book and then picking up paper and pencil to work out problems afterwards.  Most advanced math texts suggest half a dozen or more problems to work out within the text itself before presenting a dozen or more additional problems usually in a formal section entitled “Exercises”. Students have to train themselves to be thinking about and working out the “hidden” problems within the actual textual discussion sections.

Additionally, students need to consider themselves “researchers” or think of their work as discovery or play.  Can they come up with their own questions or exercises that relate the concepts they’ve read about to things they’ve done in the past? Often asking the open ended question, “What happens if I…” can be very useful.  One has to imagine that this is the type of “play” that early mathematicians like Euclid, Gauss, and Euler did, and I have to say, this is also the reason that they discovered so many interesting properties within mathematics.  (I always like to think that they were the beneficiaries of “picking the lowest hanging fruit” within mathematics – though certainly they discovered some things that took some time to puzzle out; we take some of our knowledge for granted as sitting on the shoulders of giants does allow us to see much further than we could before.)

As a result of this newly discovered rule, students will readily find that while they could read a dozen pages of their high school textbooks in just a few minutes, it may take them between a half an hour to two hours to properly read even a single page of an advanced math text. Without putting in this extra time and effort they’re going to quickly find themselves within the tall grass (or, more appropriately weeds).

Another trick of advanced textbooks is that, because they don’t have enough time or space within the primary text itself, authors often “hide” important concepts, definitions, and theorems within the “exercises” sections of their books.  Just because a concept doesn’t appear in the primary text doesn’t mean it isn’t generally important.  As a result, students should always go out of their way to at least read through all of the exercises in the text even if they don’t spend the time to work through them all.

One of the difficult things about advanced abstract mathematics is that it is most often very cumulative and even intertwined, so when one doesn’t understand the initial or early portions of a textbook, it doesn’t bode well for the later sections which require one to have mastered the previous work.  This is even worse when some courses build upon the work of earlier courses, so for example, doing well in calculus III requires that one completely mastered calculus I. At some of the highest levels like courses in Lie groups and Lie algebras requires that one mastered the material in multiple other prior courses like analysis, linear algebra, topology, and abstract algebra. Authors of textbooks like these will often state at the outset what material they expect students to have mastered to do well, and even then, they’ll often spend some time giving overviews of relevant material and even notation of these areas in appendices of their books.

As a result of this, we can take it as a general rule: “Don’t ever skip anything in a math textbook that you don’t understand.” Keep working on the concepts and examples until they become second nature to you.

Finally, more students should think of mathematics as a new language.  I’ve referenced the following Galileo quote before, but it bears repeating (emphasis is mine):

Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.

Galileo Galilee (1564–1642) in Il saggiatore (The assayer)

Though mathematical notation has changed drastically (for the better, in my opinion) since Galileo’s time, it certainly has its own jargon, definitions, and special notations.  Students should be sure to spend some time familiarizing themselves with current modern notation, and especially the notation in the book that they choose.  Often math textbooks will have a list of symbols and their meanings somewhere in the end-papers or the appendices. Authors usually go out of their way to introduce notation somewhere in either the introduction, preface, appendices, or often even in an introductory review chapter in which they assume most of their students are very familiar with, but they write it anyway to acclimate students to the particular notation they use in their text.  This notation can often seem excessive or even obtuse, but generally it’s very consistent across disciplines within mathematics, but it’s incredibly useful and necessary in making often complex concepts simple to think about and communicate to others. For those who are lost, or who want help delving into areas of math seemingly above their heads, I highly recommend the text Mathematical Notation: A Guide for Engineers and Scientists by my friend Edward R. Scheinerman as a useful guide.

A high school student may pick up a textbook on Lie Groups and be astounded at the incomprehensibility of the subject, but most of the disconnect is in knowing and understanding the actual language in which the text is written.  A neophyte student of Latin would no sooner pick up a copy of Cicero and expect to be able to revel in the beauty and joy of the words or their meaning without first spending some time studying the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the language.  Fortunately, like Latin, once one has learned a good bit of math, the notations and definitions are all very similar, so once you can read one text, you’ll be able to appreciate a broad variety of others.

Actively Reading a Mathematics Text Review:

  • Work through the steps of everything within the text
  • Come up with your own examples
  • Work through the exercises
  • Read through all the exercises, especially the ones that you don’t do
  • Don’t ever skip anything you don’t fully understand
  • Math is a language: spend some time learning (memorizing) notation

Exceptions

Naturally there are exceptions to the rule. Not all mathematics textbooks are great, good, or even passable.  There is certainly a spectrum of textbooks out there, and there are even more options at the simpler (more elementary) end, in part because of there is more demand.  For the most part, however, most textbooks are at least functional.  Still one can occasionally come across a very bad apple of a textbook.

Because of the economics of textbook publishing, it is often very difficult for a textbook to even get published if it doesn’t at least meet a minimum threshold of quality. The track record of a publisher can be a good indicator of reasonable texts. Authors of well-vetted texts will often thank professors who have taught their books at other universities or even provide a list of universities and colleges that have adopted their texts. Naturally, just because 50 colleges have adopted a particular text doesn’t necessarily mean that that it is necessarily of high quality.

One of the major issues to watch out for is using the textbook written by one’s own professor.  While this may not be an issue if your professor is someone like Serge Lang, Gilbert Strang, James Munkres, Michael Spivak, or the late Walter Rudin, if your particular professor isn’t supremely well known in his or her field, is an adjunct or associate faculty member, or is a professor at a community college, then: caveat emptor.

Since mathematics is a subject about clear thinking, analysis, and application of knowledge, I recommend that students who feel they’re being sold a bill of goods in their required/recommended textbook(s), take the time to look at alternate textbooks and choose one that is right for themselves.  For those interested in more on this particular sub-topic I’ve written about it before: On Choosing Your own Textbooks.

Parting Advice

Often, even with the best intentions, some authors can get ahead of themselves or the area at hand is so advanced that it is difficult to find a way into it. As an example, we might consider Lie groups and algebras, which is a fascinating area to delve into. Unfortunately it can take several years of advanced work to get to a sufficient level to even make a small dent into any of the textbooks in the area, though some research will uncover a handful of four textbooks that will get one quite a way into the subject with a reasonable background in just analysis and linear algebra.

When one feels like they’ve hit a wall, but still want to struggle to succeed, I’m reminded of the advice of revered mathematical communicator Paul Halmos, whose book Measure Theory needed so much additional background material, that instead of beginning with the traditional Chapter 1, he felt it necessary to include a Chapter 0 (he actually called his chapters “sections” in the book) and even then it had enough issueshewas cornered into writing the statement:

…[the reader] should not be discouraged, if on first reading of section 0, he finds that he does not have the prerequisites for reading the prerequisites.

Paul Halmos in Measure Theory(1950)

This is essentially the mathematician’s equivalent of the colloquialism “Fake it ’til you make it.”

When all else fails, use this adage, and don’t become discouraged. You’ll get there eventually!

 

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Algebra is Like Pastry: Wonderful!

"Algebra is like French Pastry: wonderful, but cannot be learned without putting one's hands to the dough." - Pierre Anton Grillet

Patissiere puts their hands to a pie crust in a rustic kitchen

 

Pierre Anton Grillet (1941 – ), algebraist
in preface to Abstract Algebra, Second Edition (Springer, 2007)

 

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You Cannot Learn Too Much Linear Algebra

Linear algebra is the central subject of mathematics. You cannot learn too much linear algebra.
Benedict Gross, Ph.D., George Vasmer Leverett Professor of Mathematics, Harvard University
in Abstract Algebra, Lecture 2 at 14:25 via Harvard Extension

 

Benedict Gross standing in front of chalkboard with equations from Abstract Algebra Class
Benedict Gross teaching abstract algebra
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