I watched a documentary about Stephen Hawking recently, and one of the most striking things about this amazing man is the fact that for decades, he has only been able to communicate at four words per minute. As I watched his story, I began to think about the history of written communication. And just as quickly, I began to think about how difficult it must be for someone like Stephen Hawking to impart formulas in a computational context. It occurred to me how much humanity needs easy mathematical communication.
There is an interesting fact that seems to elude a lot of people: typewriters didn’t even exist until the 19th century. Before then, everything was hand-written. Even type setting demanded handwritten content as a prerequisite.
Obviously, things are different now. I can fill up several pages of text in just a few short minutes with a keyboard. But one thing that humanity still lacks is an efficient way of using numeric formulas.
When I was studying for the Chartered Financial Analyst exam several years ago, I downloaded numerous programs whose sole claim was to offer a quick, easy method of digitizing complex mathematical symbols. The promise was huge; I could have digital copies of all the lengthy formulas I needed to access in order to get a deep, broad understanding of the mathematical foundations of finance and economics. But none of the applications I tried lived up to their guarantees, and I quickly abandoned my computer for thousands of three-by-five cards.
There may be some program out there that super-weenie programmers or scientists use for entering mathematical symbols into a digital form, but if the technology even exists, it is esoteric — certainly not available to the common human being the way a QWERTY keyboard is.
More than anything, I think about the concept of the spell checker, and how it gently guides us to communicate with one another more effectively and efficiently. What if we were able to apply that sort of technology — on as broad a spectrum — to mathematical symbology and formulation? What might that mean to the growth of knowledge? If I could as easily and quickly create complex formulas — being guided by processors with access to sophisticated lexicons of correct numerical syntax and rules?
Even in the middle of the so-called Information Age — if that is indeed where we still are — this gap in our ability to easily express these extremely important concepts veritably cripples our progress. Spreadsheets and some programming interfaces offer a little hope; I know I have relied on Excel’s intuitive color-coding to save me from drowning in some of my own nested conditional statements — often so long they almost take up the entire screen. But it’s not enough.
For now, I’ll just dream about the advent of a widespread, easily-adopted interface. Or maybe I’ll just invent one. Because I have lots of time for that.