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Several years ago, I developed a public lecture on the cosmic distance ladder in astronomy from a historical perspective (and emphasising the role of mathematics in building the ladder). I previously blogged about the lecture here; the most recent version of the slides can be found here. Recently, I have begun working with Tanya Klowden (a long time friend with a background in popular writing on a variety of topics, including astronomy) to expand the lecture into a popular science book, with the tentative format being non-technical chapters interspersed with some more mathematical sections to give some technical details. We are still in the middle of the writing process, but we have produced a sample chapter (which deals with what we call the “fourth rung” of the distance ladder – the distances and orbits of the planets – and how the work of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler and others led to accurate measurements of these orbits, as well as Kepler’s famous laws of planetary motion). As always, any feedback on the chapter is welcome. (Due to various pandemic-related uncertainties, we do not have a definite target deadline for when the book will be completed, but presumably this will occur sometime in the next year.)

The book is currently under contract with Yale University Press. My coauthor Tanya Klowden can be reached at tklowden@gmail.com.

The AMS and MAA have recently published (and made available online) a collection of essays entitled “Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey”. Each author contributes a story of how they encountered some internal or external difficulty in advancing their mathematical career, and how they were able to deal with such difficulties. I myself have contributed one of these essays; I was initially somewhat surprised when I was approached for a contribution, as my career trajectory has been somewhat of an outlier, and I have been very fortunate to not experience to the same extent many of the obstacles that other contributors write about in this text. Nevertheless there was a turning point in my career that I write about here during my graduate years, when I found that the improvised and poorly disciplined study habits that were able to get me into graduate school due to an over-reliance on raw mathematical ability were completely inadequate to handle the graduate qualifying exam. With a combination of an astute advisor and some sheer luck, I was able to pass the exam and finally develop a more sustainable approach to learning and doing mathematics, but it could easily have gone quite differently. (My ~~20~~ 25-year old writeup of this examination, complete with spelling errors, may be found here.)

About six years ago on this blog, I started thinking about trying to make a web-based game based around high-school algebra, and ended up using Scratch to write a short but playable puzzle game in which one solves linear equations for an unknown using a restricted set of moves. (At almost the same time, there were a number of more professionally made games released along similar lines, most notably Dragonbox.)

Since then, I have thought a couple times about whether there were other parts of mathematics which could be gamified in a similar fashion. Shortly after my first blog posts on this topic, I experimented with a similar gamification of Lewis Carroll’s classic list of logic puzzles, but the results were quite clunky, and I was never satisfied with the results.

Over the last few weeks I returned to this topic though, thinking in particular about how to gamify the rules of inference of propositional logic, in a manner that at least vaguely resembles how mathematicians actually go about making logical arguments (e.g., splitting into cases, arguing by contradiction, using previous result as lemmas to help with subsequent ones, and so forth). The rules of inference are a list of a dozen or so deductive rules concerning propositional sentences (things like “( AND ) OR (NOT )”, where are some formulas). A typical such rule is Modus Ponens: if the sentence is known to be true, and the implication “ IMPLIES ” is also known to be true, then one can deduce that is also true. Furthermore, in this deductive calculus it is possible to temporarily introduce some unproven statements as an assumption, only to discharge them later. In particular, we have the deduction theorem: if, after making an assumption , one is able to derive the statement , then one can conclude that the implication “ IMPLIES ” is true without any further assumption.

It took a while for me to come up with a workable game-like graphical interface for all of this, but I finally managed to set one up, now using Javascript instead of Scratch (which would be hopelessly inadequate for this task); indeed, part of the motivation of this project was to finally learn how to program in Javascript, which turned out to be not as formidable as I had feared (certainly having experience with other C-like languages like C++, Java, or lua, as well as some prior knowledge of HTML, was very helpful). The main code for this project is available here. Using this code, I have created an interactive textbook in the style of a computer game, which I have titled “QED”. This text contains thirty-odd exercises arranged in twelve sections that function as game “levels”, in which one has to use a given set of rules of inference, together with a given set of hypotheses, to reach a desired conclusion. The set of available rules increases as one advances through the text; in particular, each new section gives one or more rules, and additionally each exercise one solves automatically becomes a new deduction rule one can exploit in later levels, much as lemmas and propositions are used in actual mathematics to prove more difficult theorems. The text automatically tries to match available deduction rules to the sentences one clicks on or drags, to try to minimise the amount of manual input one needs to actually make a deduction.

Most of one’s proof activity takes place in a “root environment” of statements that are known to be true (under the given hypothesis), but for more advanced exercises one has to also work in sub-environments in which additional assumptions are made. I found the graphical metaphor of nested boxes to be useful to depict this tree of sub-environments, and it seems to combine well with the drag-and-drop interface.

The text also logs one’s moves in a more traditional proof format, which shows how the mechanics of the game correspond to a traditional mathematical argument. My hope is that this will give students a way to understand the underlying concept of forming a proof in a manner that is more difficult to achieve using traditional, non-interactive textbooks.

I have tried to organise the exercises in a game-like progression in which one first works with easy levels that train the player on a small number of moves, and then introduce more advanced moves one at a time. As such, the order in which the rules of inference are introduced is a little idiosyncratic. The most powerful rule (the law of the excluded middle, which is what separates classical logic from intuitionistic logic) is saved for the final section of the text.

Anyway, I am now satisfied enough with the state of the code and the interactive text that I am willing to make both available (and open source; I selected a CC-BY licence for both), and would be happy to receive feedback on any aspect of the either. In principle one could extend the game mechanics to other mathematical topics than the propositional calculus – the rules of inference for first-order logic being an obvious next candidate – but it seems to make sense to focus just on propositional logic for now.

I recently finished the first draft of the last of my books based on my 2011 blog posts (and also my Google buzzes and Google+ posts from that year), entitled “Spending symmetry“. The PDF of this draft is available here. This is again a rather assorted (and lightly edited) collection of posts (and buzzes, and Google+ posts), though concentrating in the areas of analysis (both standard and nonstandard), logic, and geometry. As always, comments and corrections are welcome.

I recently finished the first draft of the the first of my books, entitled “Hilbert’s fifth problem and related topics“, based on the lecture notes for my graduate course of the same name. The PDF of this draft is available here. As always, comments and corrections are welcome.

My graduate text on measure theory (based on these lecture notes) is now published by the AMS as part of the Graduate Studies in Mathematics series. (See also my own blog page for this book, which among other things contains a draft copy of the book in PDF format.)

I recently finished the first draft of the last of my books based on my 2010 blog posts (and also my Google buzzes), entitled “Compactness and contradiction“. The PDF of this draft is available here. This is a somewhat assorted (and lightly edited) collection of posts (and buzzes), though concentrating in the areas of analysis (both standard and nonstandard), logic, and group theory. As always, comments and corrections are welcome.

I’ve just finished writing the first draft of my third book coming out of the 2010 blog posts, namely “Higher order Fourier analysis“, which was based primarily on my graduate course in the topic, though it also contains material from some additional posts related to linear and higher order Fourier analysis on the blog. It is available online here. As usual, comments and corrections are welcome. There is also a stub page for the book, which at present does not contain much more than the above link.

I’ve just finished writing the first draft of my second book coming out of the 2010 blog posts, namely “Topics in random matrix theory“, which was based primarily on my graduate course in the topic, though it also contains material from some additional posts related to random matrices on the blog. It is available online here. As usual, comments and corrections are welcome. There is also a stub page for the book, which at present does not contain much more than the above link.

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