e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

The poetic in mathematics

Cissoids, conchoids and epitrochoids; keratoid and ramphoid cusps; acnodes, spinodes and crunodes; Cayleyanns, Hessians and Steinerians.

I came across these wonderful words in a book called Unknown Quantity: A real and imaginary history of algebra by John Derbyshire. They are all old terms once used in algebraic geometry.

I have no idea what they all are, and of course it doesn’t matter from a mathematician’s point of view – they’ve waved farewell to the abstract world of algebra and been replaced with modern terms like

parabolas, ellipses, Cassini ovals, lemniscates, hyperbolas, cubic curves, affine space, cylindrical algebraic deomposition

I could go on.

The algebraists who coined these terms must have had an ear for the exotic.

I can picture one of them working away, late at night, in a study lit only by a single desk lamp. In a ‘eureka’ moment she discovers a new, strange algebraic creature, and spends the rest of the night thinking up an appropriate name for it,


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8 thoughts on “The poetic in mathematics

  1. It’s been a few decades since I took algebra and loved it back then, but these words go over my head at lightening speed! Though, they are lovely! 🙂


    • Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting. I agree words like this are rather hard to fix in the memory and understanding. I hope the people who coined them are somewhere where they know about our appreciation of their efforts.


  2. Chris Mills on said:

    Lots of lovely words…a far cry from my daughter’s maths workbook!


  3. I always thought Mathematics was a foreign language and still forget how to think in numbers but what lovely words. Now, if they were fitted to images I might find I wasn’t so afraid, but perhaps it is just too late.


    • Thank you for your comment. I think the words must have been fitted to images at one time – boring geometric ones probably.
      I have been told that one gets better at maths as one gets older. I’ve certainly become more interested, but whether that makes me better at it, I’m not sure.


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