Why Mathematics is Boring

This paper riffs on one of the most popular handouts on my website — Short Stories: 10 Tips for Novice Creative Writers (originally written by one of my technical writing students in 2002, though I continue to tweak it), and applies it to mathematics.

[B]efore anyone can understand a piece of mathematics, they must first become
interested in it. So, for a mathematician who wants to fully develop a piece of mathematics, discovery
and proof are only the first steps on a longer road. The next step is getting people interested.

Unfortunately, mathematicians are not trained in this art. Indeed, their writing is famous for
being “dry”. There are exceptions, and these exceptions are worth studying. But it also makes sense
to look to people whose whole business is getting people interested: story-tellers.

Everyone enjoys a good story. We have been telling and listening to stories for untold millennia.
Stories are one of our basic ways of understanding the world. I believe that when we read a piece of
mathematics, part of us is reading it as a highly refined and sublimated sort of story, with characters
and a plot, conflict and resolution.

If this is true, maybe we should consider some tips for short story writers, and see how they can
be applied — in transmuted form — to the writing of mathematics. These tips may sound a bit
crass to mathematicians, or even readers of “serious” fiction. But they go straight to the heart of
what gets people interested, and what keeps them interested, in a piece of writing. — John C Baez (PDF | HTML by Google)

2 thoughts on “Why Mathematics is Boring

  1. I was reading Baez’s physics summaries on Sci.math back in the 90s (when I could get a threaded news feed at school for free). His writing followed this advice, and I plan on incorporating this into my writing courses :) This is GREAT!

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