The process of drafting in mathematics

Sometimes one can’t write the draft of a mathematical paper with constant gravitas. Sometimes a line bursts in that needs to be modified with extreme prejudice the next time you go through your logic.

Such as this:

Now, let the shit get real, boys.

Not up to the standard of mathematical publication; though it would make for interesting reading, no doubt. “Let n be a natural number, yo. We’re talking about continuous real functions f here, so listen up, crowd. I ain’t gonna tell this twice. I’m about to prove a result on integrability. See Rudin’s Lemma 3.1 on how it was done classic-style. You know n, you know f; now here’s g, and it’s a continuous function too, and a finite… bitch. Now, let the shit get real, boys; this is a result for the ages —”

Then, sometimes, one tinkers with the LaTeX file and feels it needs an epigraph of some kind, some quotation to sum it all up, some emotional summary in addition to the factual abstract.

Which is then placed at the beginning of the file, carefully preceded by a comment sign so that it won’t show.

A few examples of mine: from a particularly gnarly graduate studies bit of work:

Some days it don’t come easy
Some days it don’t come hard
Some days it don’t come at all, and these are the days that never end
— Meat Loaf

From another bit of graduate head-meet-wallery:

Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.
— William Faulkner

From my licentiate thesis, a double:

Some of you may have had occasion to run into mathematicians and to wonder therefore: How they got that way?
— Tom Lehrer

You know we all became mathematicians for the same reason: we were lazy.
— Max Rosenlicht

And a few of the commented-out alternate titles for my master’s thesis (some translated from Finnish) —

  • The Groups of Cain and Abel
  • The Lives and Deeds of the Primes
  • The Halting Proble (sic)
  • Insert Title Here
  • 2 + 2 = 5
  • (Unrelated proseminary work title) II
  • (Unrelated proseminary work title) IS STILL TRUE
  • (Unrelated proseminary work title) as a mover of world history
  • Partial Fractions and I
  • My Most Beloved Diagonal Matrices
  • Sex and drugs are nothing compared to a good proof – on booze, there is no definitive result yet
  • Musta maisteri (A pun — reads either as a slangy “I’m gonna be an M.Sc.” or, pulp-style, “The Black Master of Science”)
  • Magister Negi Magi (Well, more a Magister Scientiae. Though one shouldn’t think graduate studies in mathematics resemble a magical harem manga overmuch. There are incantations, but that’s about all. They won’t get the panties off anyone.)
  • The Lemma of Death and Other Shuddersome Results

A few of those would actually make good titles for actual published papers, too. Who could resist reading something called “My Most Beloved Diagonal Matrices”? What would they be? What would they tell of you? Would the prospective reader think, have I been missing something? Don’t I yet know how to love diagonal matrices? Is there something especially lovely in them? By Jones, I need to read and find out!

And “The Lemma of Death” was an actual nickname for one fecking troublesome result in there. One of those where a reference has both “we can easily see”, “by the usual methods”, and “immediately”. A beginning graduate student really learns to hate those.

And then there was the title that actually adorned the work’s first page for months and months, because dagnabbit you have to have something there and as you don’t want to get attached to an ultimately inaccurate overall title, it better be something unusable like the cocksure throwaway comment of lecturer X on being asked who the Dead Male Russian Mathematician Firstname Q. Lastname, my field’s absurdly central big name man but otherwise an unknown, is:

“Lastname? That’s some wild party girl.”

One Response to “The process of drafting in mathematics”

  1. Bob O'H Says:

    The Lemma of Death and Other Shuddersome Results needs to be written up for Nature’s Futures column. I assume it’s related to The Halting Proble

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