Thursday, January 20, 2011

Does Tiger Woods know what a Venn Diagram is?

In prior blogs I noted that the terms Turing Test and Prisoner's Dilemma have been used in articles for non-math people. In the age of Google people can look things up (recall that Google makes us smarter). I have since seen Prisoner's Dilemma used as the name of an episode of the TV show White Collar. They used it mostly correctly in the show.

I have spotted some more math term in a non-math context.


In an article entitled Rachel Uchitel is not a Madam., which is about the world Tiger Woods was involved in, the following was mentioned. (The context is a comparison between the options men have for affairs: a prostitute or a civilian.)
Both methods of slaking the hunger have their pros and cons. Men like to hunt, and there is no need to hunt a prostitute. Men like to cheat without strings, and you can't stop a civilian from falling in love. But (Tiger) Woods found a way to enjoy the best of both worlds in one type of woman, a Venn diagram of sexual satisfaction. Most of his women lived in a nebulous in-between world.
Will this enlighten the masses as to what a Venn diagram is? If they look it up then yes; however, the actual statement is wrong. What they really mean is an intersection of sexual satisfaction, or, as it is commonly known, an intersextion.


An article entitled Harry Potter and the Dragged out final act began as follows.
When Warner brothers announced that the seventh and final book of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, would be two movies, it occurred to me that the company had been insufficiently ambitious. If, as reported, Warner executives are scared of running short of tentpoles (i.e., the so-called franchises that prop up a studio), they should at the very least divide the next half in half. Following Zeno's paradox, they could even turn Deathly Hallows into an infinite number of sequels with Becket-like arcs of nonaction: "Let's apparate." [They do not move.]
Is this the correct usage of Zeno's paradox? Becket? Apparate? I was inspired to look up apparate and put in a pointer so that you can learn what it means too!


There is a general interest magazine called n+1. I emailed the editors to ask why they chose the name and got this enlightening response:
Well, as a non-math person and one of the founding editors of n+1, I can tell you that we still don't know very much about math, but we did have some vague high school memories of set theory and algebra and knew that n+1 could mean, if it were a set, an infinite series or open-ended expansion, or just that for any quantity (n), there's often more than meets the eye, or is commonly thought or known (+1). That was the sense that Chad Harbach, another founding editor, had in mind when he first thought of the title as a placeholder, a math metaphor for human potential, back when he was a Harvard undergrad. Over time, the title also seemed to work in response to the "End of History" crowd, all those people who told us that no new ideas were really possible in the humanities, no new writing was possible, that it was foolish to start a magazine of politics, literature, and culture in these times. So we took on n+1 as a rallying cry, of sorts. Someone might also hear it as "end+1," after the end, a new beginning, that sort of thing. We did have a math PhD friend who suggested that, if we really wanted to designate an infinite universe of possibilities, we should have called it omega plus one, but that seemed too much for us non-math types. As far as I know, omega plus one is still available as a title.

Thanks for writing in to ask and best of luck with the blog and other endeavors,
I wish them well too!

Will any of these terms enter the common vocabulary? I suspect that Prisoner's Dilemma will as it is a nice shorthand for a common phenomena. I suspect that Turing Test, Venn Diagram, Zeno's Paradox, and n+1 do not come up often enough to break out into common use.

What math terms have you seen used in articles for non-math people? Were they used correctly? Will they become common? Are they common already? If so have then are they related to the original meaning?


  1. Just this week a member of my church leadership, not a math person at all, referred to "the kayak", by which she meant the intersection of two properties. (Her reasoning was that the part of the two-set Venn diagram representing the intersection is shaped like a kayak seen from above.)

    My WV is "taxido", which is a vehicle used to take you to a black-tie dinner.

  2. I must have filled out dozens of Venn diagrams in high (and middle) school in English and history when comparing and contrasting characters, time periods, policies -- everything!
    Is this unusual? I just checked the Wikipedia page, and was shocked that it only mentioned non-math applications in passing:
    "Since then [the 1960s], they have also been adopted by other curriculum fields such as reading."

  3. Venn diagrams are very well known to the public, especially to the younger generations. Venn diagrams have actually been a weak kind of internet meme lately. Here's one of my favorites: Zombie-Frankenstein-Dracula Venn Diagram

    And here are some others.

  4. Until reading this post, I didn't even know that Venn diagrams had a mathematical origin. They seem like obvious, "every day" structures, like lists. We used Venn diagrams often in school, but mostly I remember them in English and the social sciences, I don't remember ever seeing one in math class.

  5. An interesting crowdsourcing approach to ranking computer science departments:

  6. GASARCH asks for "math terms in a non-math context"

    Surely GASARCH has set forth a Great Topic ... that is, a topic whose opposite is also a Great Topic ... that great opposite being "non-math terms in a math context."

    A good example can be found in Giles Foden's recent novel Turbulence ... on of the rare novels in which PDE's and information theory play a central role. In this novel we find mathematician/ prodigy/ protagonist Henry Meadows musing as follows:

    "He did not have the intellectual power or ethical rigor of the others who sat, figuratively speaking, around that table, but he had something none of the rest of us had. Conversational force and the ability to make a narrative of a scientific forecast. The latter ability, especially, is a really important quality in a forecaster.

    But if the story's wrong then the whole team is in the soup."


    Here the non-math word appearing in a math context is narrative.

    Broadly speaking, when a mathematical narrative is fiction explicitly, we call it a "novel" ... when it is fiction implicitly---commonly in the form of a morality tale or an utopian fantasy---we call it a "roadmap." :)

    Giles Foden has written a wonderful novel on this theme ... his previous work includes the excellent The Last King of Scotland ... it would be good for mathematics if there were more writers like Foden.

  7. The use of "Zeno's dilemma" is incorrect, since the duration of each episode should be half of the previous one. The infinite sum of episodes durations still the same ;)

  8. In the first film of the three part movie DEATH NOTE (based on the Japanese anime series with the same name) detective L tries to explain that a series of mysterious deaths are not a random event by showing how a random distribution of deaths would approach the normal distribution and how the current distribution of deaths is far away from being normal distribution. From that, he concludes that the deaths must be non-random murders

  9. The phrase "zero-sum game" seems to be used almost arbitrarily by non-mathematicians.

  10. The phrase "Venn diagram" appears approximately 35+ minutes into Ben Affleck's movie "The Town" ... a police captain reviewing the evidence in a bank robbery says "You need a f**ng Venn diagram to keep track of these guys."

    Of course, perhaps that should have been "nonplanar graph". :)