News FocusMathematics

A Good Sign

Science  24 Jul 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5939, pp. 391
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_391

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Mathematical signs have the power to squeeze hundreds of pages of work into a few neat lines. But as math gets more complex, the symbols can show their limitations. Byron Cook, a professor of computer science at Queen Mary, University of London, enlisted the help of New York–based artist Tauba Auerbach, a former professional sign writer whose artwork has played with language and technology, to create symbols for his solution to a 70-year-old puzzle called the halting problem. Through trial and error, Cook and Auerbach learned that new symbols should build on old ones, so they make intuitive sense at first glance. Although the verdict from his colleagues is still out, Cook says the new notation has made a "dramatic" difference to his own work. He estimates that more than 100 of his students and colleagues already recognize the symbols. Next, he hopes to have them implemented in LaTeX, the typesetting package that mathematicians commonly use to publish their work electronically.