Welcome to the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) blog. The IMA is the UK's learned and professional society for mathematics and its applications. We promote mathematics research, education and careers, and the use of mathematics in business, industry and commerce. Among our activities we produce academic journals, organise conferences and engage with government.

In this blog we will publish mathematical articles and news to reflect the interests of our members who come from a multiplicity of different organisations including university academics, industrial mathematicians, financiers, school teachers, scientists, civil servants etc.

Monday, 5 March 2012

David Nelson on mathematical dictionaries

On Friday, the East Midlands Branch welcomed David Nelson for a talk "Two Dictionaries of Mathematics, 1679 and 1989" at the University of Nottingham.

I was lucky enough to spend a little time with David before and after his talk. He was full of anecdotes from his varied career (including the time he convinced a young man named Ian Stewart to write a book about chaos). He was interviewed in 2010 by Terry Edwards for the IMA members' publication Mathematics Today. (Those with copies will find this interview printed in two parts in vol. 46, iss. 6, pp. 292-295 and vol. 47, iss. 1, pp. 32-35.) This records David as:
A mathematician, publishing editor (including the Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics), musician, educationalist and in the context of mathematics, a psychologist and historian.
In his talk, David spoke about Joseph Moxon’s Mathematicks made Easie: or, a Mathematical Dictionary Explaining the Terms of Art and Difficult Phrases used in Arithmetick, Geometry, Astronomy, Astrology, and other Mathematical Sciences (1679), the first mathematical dictionary to be published in English. You can view some pages from this book at Abebooks.co.uk (although the pricetag, at £895, will be a little high for most!). The pictures are from the second edition, much enlarged in 1692 following Moxon's death (also, despite his title, the version David showed in his talk).

Wikipedia reports (mostly confirmed by my memory of David's talk):
Joseph Moxon (1627-1700) was a London dealer and printer, specialising in mathematical books and instruments, a globe maker, amateur in the mechanical arts, hydrographer to Charles II, and Fellow of the Royal Society, the first tradesman to be so elected. He was the first to produce a dictionary devoted to mathematics in the English language.
David used this dictionary to take us on a tour of early dictionaries of mathematics (in English and otherwise).

The second dictionary in David's talk was one he edited, the Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics, now in its greatly expanded fourth edition. David explained some of the process of attracting contributions and putting together such an undertaking.

On the subject of mathematical reference, before the talk I wondered idly on Twitter: "These days, what would you use to look up an unknown mathematical term or concept?" Early replies came in for Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha, Twitter and "The Princeton companion to Mathematics", so I set up a poll. This is wholly unscientific, not least because it was effectively a poll of Twitter users, but the results (100 responses) were:
  • Do a web search: 35%;
  • Wolfram Alpha: 13%;
  • Wikipedia: 28%;
  • Ask on a social network eg Twitter: 5%;
  • Look in a book: 16%;
  • Other: 3%.
The most common response was to do a web search or look on Wikipedia. David addressed this point in his talk, admitting that he does use Wikipedia at times and that the availability of such online tools has affected sales of the book in more recent editions. I was surprised that as many as 16% responding to my poll would consult a book. David said that many people had told him they still keep a copy of the Penguin dictionary on their desks. Actually, given the availability of curated definitions, written by experts and edited for style, plus the serendipity of stumbling across other definitions while searching, I left the talk fairly well convinced of the value of a printed dictionary as well.

The next IMA East Midlands Branch talk will be The Hidden Maths of Sport by Rob Eastaway on 22nd March 2012, also at the University of Nottingham. Further Branch talks are available via the IMA website. 

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