Public: Math Education
Scientific Symbols   (+8, -4)  [vote for, against]
Let X = X

In studying the sciences and engineering, we learn that R is the symbol for radius. And electric current. And the gas constant in pV=nRT. V is both volume and velocity. And so it goes. Evidently scientists developing all this nomenclature began to realize that a single symbol should not represent too many variables or constants, so they started using Greek symbols. That was fine for a while, but pretty quickly we came to the point where sigma represents, what, maybe _twelve_ different things?

So why did we stop with the Greek alphabet? Why not incorporate characters from Hebrew, Cyrillic, Hangul, simplified Kanji, etc., even re-assigning some of those that are currently over-used, until each symbol represents one thing and one thing only.

And when all of the existing characters are used up, let me know and I'll create some unique ones.
-- beauxeault, Nov 02 2000

Mertz Makes Sense http://www.negativl...om/mertz/index.html
What if a plus sign was added to the phone pad, for party calls? [reensure, Nov 02 2000]

HTTP symbol http://www.halfbake.../idea/HTTP_20symbol
Make sure to read Jutta's screed against newly coined heiroglyphics. [egnor, Nov 02 2000, last modified Oct 17 2004]

I don't know about you, but I've made plenty of mistakes having to do with this nomenclature problem. For exampe, they tell us F=ma, but a happens to have the units m/s/s in many cases (but mass is very diffferent from meters). And F would be measured in N, which is also often a symbol for a normal force. And that is just in elementary mechanics! All that confusion can be part of one simple problem. I'm all for standardizing with an all new glyph set for some of these.

W = Work done 100W = 100 Watts

Terrible.
-- Brog, Nov 03 2000

waugsqueke, your proposal would accomplish exactly what I'm after: Each variable (or unit) would have a unique symbol, thereby eliminating ambiguity. Your approach also has the advantage of being less cryptic, at least to English-speakers. But it would be rather cumbersome for use in equations, which I imagine is the problem that spawned the use of symbols in the first place.
-- beauxeault, Nov 05 2000

"Ready Kilowatt" sez: Some amt X to the nth too tough? Just use some more of your resting brain.

I recall a funnybook that the characters were units of work--Mr Amp used to force Mr Volt though a doorknob to get into a room and so on. Cute.
-- reensure, Nov 06 2000

In math, it's not uncommon to use typographical distinctions to make it easier to tell what a variable represents. Sets, for example, are customarily represented by capital letters in a "doublestruck" font. Some similar convention could be used for units of measurement. I suggest strikethrough letters (horizontal line through the middle), because that's easily done on both blackboards and in HTML.
-- baf, Nov 06 2000

The notion that symbols represent different things in different contexts is deeply important to our system of mathematics, and any attempt to do away with it altogether is doomed to failure. Create a symbol for 'force', you say, rather than overload 'f'; but your beautiful symbol represents which force on what object under which conditions? If students are unable to mind the hidden context attached to symbols and manipulate these symbols effectively in local contexts, they're not likely to be good scientists.

That said, some rationalization wouldn't be bad. I'd go in the opposite direction; eliminate all those Greek and Hebrew letters and other funky symbols, and replace them all with good old-fashioned *words*. We'd need to overhaul mathematical typesetting to support multicharacter variable names (we'd need to replace the implicit multiplication operator with something explicit, as computer languages do), but the increased clarity would be worth it. Surely "Force = Mass · Acceleration" is better than "F = ma" or a jumble of heiroglyphics?
-- egnor, Nov 06 2000

No, F=ma is better, because it's shorter. There's a good reason that people started to use symbols in the first place - they promote brevity and allow those who are familiar with them to concentrate on the concepts behind them rather than their textual representation.
-- hippo, Nov 06 2000

It's not as if words don't carry ambiguities as well. Armed aggression = religious ceremony * something done by add-on video cards?
-- baf, Nov 06 2000

"Force = Mass · Acceleration" is better for a textbook. "F = ma" is better for scribbling on the back of a napkin. Heiroglyphics are terrible all 'round. I'm mostly just suggesting that we replace all *canonical* symbols with words. If anything, that frees up the alphabet for people to use as they please on the spot. There's a continuum between brevity and clarity; shorter is not always better; words abbreviate naturally to letters; custom symbols are a bad idea.

And no, words aren't perfect, nothing is, but surely "Force" is better than "F" and also better than a new symbol we made up to represent "Force" (but only in the context of equations, not sentences!).
-- egnor, Nov 07 2000

Language is a grid through which we see the world. [Whorf]
-- rayfo, Nov 20 2000

You guys are getting your pantywaists all twisted. We should just throw all these symbols into the dust bin and forget them. They're not doing any good anyway. Just use the numbers without the letters; it's simplest that way.
-- Vance, Jan 29 2001

There's no problem telling units from variables. Units are typeset roman, and variables are italic. The m in <i>F</i> = <i>ma</i> and the m in <i>d</i> = 5 m are different symbols.

If you think brevity is a problem in math, try to do Einstein's Tensor writing out all the summations. I know I would never have understood Maxwell's Equations if "Del dot B equals zero" had to be written out as all the implied partial derivatives.
-- Norton, Apr 06 2002

But writting variables in words creates more abiguities, why don't we all just keep it simple: like this: strings (lim, sin, cos, tan, etc.) are written normally. All constants are replaced by one symbol and a subscript defining the constant (it could even be a word as here there would be no ambiguitly as the symbols would equate to no number and so it could not be a term), this and all other symbols representing variables would be written in italics. When generic 'precidence' brackets are required always use the standard ones (so that the others have no abiuity)... In addition... A string-symbolic system would mean that the equations would be specific to one country, and several different versions would exist around the world (I am not saying that this isn't already the case)...
-- Ossalisc, Aug 27 2003

Aren't there tens of thousands of symbols in the chinese alphabet? Why not use those?
-- Bad Jim, Apr 12 2008

[beauxeault] The important part of physics is understanding the relationship between mass, velocity, acceleration, coulomb, volt, gauss, eorsted, ect, ect. Each is it's own entity or it's own relationship to another entity. Doesn't matter what you call it. Besides If you standardise every possible variable, you will discourage alot of einsteins and newtons. Both of these men where quite accustomed to making thier own units when the need arose.
-- MikeD, Apr 13 2008

[bad jim] - there are really only about 300 symbols in Chinese (the way there are 26 letters in English). The 10000's of Chinese "characters" are merely formed by writing two or three or four of those symbols above, below, and next to each other in a 2-dimensional arrangement.
-- phundug, Apr 14 2008

Actuarial symbol notation could be used though - there's a whole setup where the letter A refers to the present value of something, but then, below-to-the-right of the "A" you write the interest rate used; above-right you write the number of payments per year; below-left you write the time until the first payment, etc. A full symbol can look like a planet with little subscript/superscript "moons" around it.

In physics you could write a big "F" for force, but then on different sides of/above and below it, you indicate (a) the source; (b) the units of measurement; (c) magnitude; (d) direction; etc.
-- phundug, Apr 14 2008

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