The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 09 Mar 2022

Bad but interesting mathematical notation idea

Zaz Brown showed up on Math SE yesterday with a proposal to make mathematical notation more uniform. It's been pointed out several times that the expressions

$$y^n = x \qquad n = \log_y x \qquad y=\sqrt[n]x $$

all mean the same thing, and yet look completely different. This has led to proposals to try to unify the three notations, although none has gone anywhere. (For example, this Math SE thread .)


In this new thread, M. Brown has an interesting observation: exponentiation also unifies addition and multiplication. So write !!\o x!! to mean !!e^x!!, and !!\u x!! to mean !!\ln x!!, and leave multiplication as it is. Now !!x^y!! can be written as !!\o{\u x y}!! and !!x+y!! can be written as !!\u{\bar x \! \bar y}!!.

Well, this is a terrible idea, and I'll explain why I think so in some detail. But I really hope nobody will think I mean this as any sort of criticism of its author. I have a lot of ideas too, and most of them are amazingly bad, way worse than this one. Having bad ideas doesn't make someone a bad person. And just because an idea is bad, doesn't mean it wasn't worth considering; thinking about ideas is how you decide which ones are bad and which aren't. M. Brown's idea was interesting enough for me to think about it and write an article. That's a compliment, not a criticism.

I'm deeply interested in notation. I think mathematicians don't yet understand the power of mathematical notation and what it does. We use it, but we don't understand it. I've observed before that you can solve algebraic equations or calculus problems just by “pushing around the symbols”. But why can you do that? Where is the meaning, and how do the symbols capture the meaning? How does that work? The fact that symbols in general can somehow convey meaning is a deep philosophical mystery, not just in mathematics but in all communication, and nobody understands how it works. Mathematical symbols can be even more amazing: they don't just tell you what other people were thinking, they tell you things themselves. You rearrange them in a certain way and they smile and whisper secrets: “now you can see this function is everywhere zero”, “this is evidently unbounded” or “the result is undefined when !!\lvert x_1\rvert > \frac 23!!”. It's almost as if the symbols are doing some of the thinking for you.

Anyway this particular idea is not good, but maybe we can learn something from its failure modes?

Here's how you would write !!x^2+x!!: $$\u{\o{\o{2\u x}}{\o x}}$$

Zaz Brown suggested that this expression might be better written as !!x{\u{\o x \o 1}}!!, which is analogous to !!x(x+1)!!, but I think that reply misses a very important point: you need to be able to write both expressions so that you can equate them, or transform one into the other. The expression !!x(x+1)!! is useful because you can see at a glance that it is composite for all integer !!x!! larger than 1, and actually twice a composite for sufficiently large !!x!!. (This is the kind of thing I had in mind when I said the symbols whisper secrets to you.) !!x^2+x!! is useful in different ways: you can see that it's !!\Theta(x^2)!! and it's !!(x+1)^2 - (x+1)!! and so on. Both are useful and you need to be able to turn one into the other easily. Good notation facilitates that sort of conversion.

M. Brown's proposal actually has at least two components. One component is its choice of multiplication, exponentials and logarithms as the only first-class citizens. The other is the specific way that was chosen to write these, with the over- and underbars. This second component is no good at all, for purely typographic reasons. These three expressions look almost identical but have completely different meanings: $$ \u{\o a\, \o c}\qquad \u{\o { ac}} \qquad \o{\u a\, \u c}.$$

In fact, the two on the right were almost indistinguishable until I told MathJax to put in some extra space. I'm sure you can imagine similar problems with !!\u{\o{\o{2\u x}}}{\o x}!! turning into !!\u{\o{\o{2\u x x}}}!! or !!\u{\o{\o{2\u x }x}}!! or whatever. Think of how easy it is to drop a minus sign; this is much worse.

[ Addendum 20220308: Earlier, I had said that !!x+y!! could be written as !!\u{\bar x\bar y}!!. A Gentle Reader pointed out that the bar on the bottom wasn't connected but should have been, as on the far right of this screenshot:

Screenshot of blog text “x+y can be written as (xy) (xy)” where in each case both the x and the y have overbars, and the whole thing has an underbar, except that on the right the underbar has a tiny break, and on the left the x and y have been squished together uncomfortably to eliminate the break in the underbar.

I meant it to be connected and what I wrote asked for it to be connected, but MathJax, which formats the math formulas on the blog, didn't connect it. To remove the gap, I had to explicitly subtract space between the !!x!! and the !!y!!. ]

But maybe the other component of the proposal has something to it and we will find out what it is if we fix the typographic problem with the bars. What's a good alternative?

Maybe !!\o x = x^\bullet!! and !!\u x = x_\bullet!! ? On the one hand we get the nice property that !!x^\bullet_\bullet = x!!. But I think the dots would make my head swim. Perhaps !!\o x = x\top!! and !!\u x = x\bot!!? Let's try.

Good notation facilitates transformation of expressions into equal expressions. The !!\top\bot!! notation allows us to easily express the simple identities $$a\top\bot \quad = \quad a\bot\top \quad = \quad a.$$ That kind of thing is good, although the dots did it better. But I couldn't find anything else like it.

Let's see what the distributive law looks like. In standard notation it is $$a(b+c) = ab + ac.$$ In the original bar notation it was $$a\u{\o b\o c} = \u{\o{ab}\, \o{ac}}.$$ This looks uncouth but perhaps would not be worse once one got used to it.

With the !!\top\bot!! idea we have

$$ a(b\top c\top)\bot = ((ab)\top(ac)\top)\bot. $$

I had been hoping that by making the !!\top!! and !!\bot!! symbols postfix we'd be able to avoid parentheses. That didn't happen: without the parentheses you can't distinguish between !!(ab)\top!! and !!a(b\top)!!. Postfix notation is famous for allowing you to omit parentheses, but that's only if your operators all have fixed arity. Here the invisible variadic multiplication ruins that. And making it visible dyadic multiplication is not really an improvement:

$$ ab\top c\top\cdot\cdot\bot = ab\cdot\top ac\cdot \top\cdot \bot. $$

You know what I think would happen if we actually tried to use this idea? Someone would very quickly invent an abbreviation for !!\u{\o {x_1}\, \o {x_2} \cdots \o{x_k}}!!, I don't know, something like “!!x_1 + x_2 + \ldots + x_k!!” maybe. (It looks crazy, I know, but it might just work.) Because people might like to discuss the fact that $$ \u{\o 2\, \o 3 } = 5$$ and without an addition sign there seems to be no way to explain why this should be.

Well, I have been turning away from the real issue for a while now, but !!a(b\top c\top)\bot = !! !!((ab)\top(ac)\top)\bot!! forces me to confront it. The standard expression of the distributive law equates a computation with two operations and another with three. The computations expressed by the new notation involve five and six operations respectively. Put this way, the distributive law is no longer simple!

This reminds me of the earlier suggestion that if !!x^2+x!! is too complicated, one can write !!x(x+1)!! instead. But expressions don't only express a result, they express a way of arriving at that result. The purpose of an equation is to state that two different computations arrive at the same result. Yes, it's true that $$a+b = \ln e^ae^b,$$ but the two computations are not the same! If they were, the statement would be vacuous. Instead, it says that the simple computation on the left arrives at the same result as the complicated one on the right, an interesting thing to know. “!!2+3=5!!” might imply that !!e^2\cdot e^3=e^5!! but it doesn't say the same thing.

Here's my takeaway from consideration of the Zaz Brown proposal:

It's not sufficient for a system of notation to have a way of expressing every result; it has to be able to express every possible computation.

Put that way, other instructive examples come to mind. Consider Egyptian fractions. It's known that every rational number between !!0!! and !!1!! can be written in the form $$\frac1{a_1} + \frac1{a_2} + \ldots + \frac1{a_n}$$ where !!\{ a_i\}!! is a strictly increasing sequence of positive integers. For example $$\frac 7{23} = \frac 14 + \frac1{19} + \frac1{583} + \frac1{1019084}$$ or with a bit more ingenuity, $$\frac7{23} = \frac16 + \frac1{12} + \frac1{23} + \frac1{138} + \frac1{276},$$ longer but less messy. The ancient Egyptians did in fact write numbers this way, and when they wanted to calculate !!2\cdot\frac17!!, they had to look it up in a table, because writing !!\frac27!! was not an expressible computation, it had to be expressed in terms of reciprocals and sums, so !!2\cdot\frac 17 = \frac14 + \frac1{28}!!. They could write all the numbers, but they couldn't write all the ways of making the numbers.

(Neither can we. We can write the real root of !!x^3-2!! as !!\sqrt[3]2!!, but there is no effective notation for the real root of !!x^5+x-1!!. The best we can do is something like “!!0.75488\ldots!!”, which is even less effective than how the Egyptians had to write !!\frac27!! as !!\frac14+\frac1{28}!!.)

Anyway I think my conclusion from all this is that a practical mathematical notation really must have a symbol for addition, which is not at all surprising. But it was fun and interesting to see what happened without it. It didn't work well, but maybe the next idea will be better.

Thanks again, Zaz Brown.

[Other articles in category /math/se] permanent link