Just continuing my earlier Round 1, off-the-cuff analysis of the Big Internet Math-Off competition, now that Round 2 is near closing...
Have been quite surprised by several of the outcomes thus far in the contest, either by who won, or by the margin of victory. A recent such surprising match was Edmund Harriss vs. Paul Taylor, with the former choosing to write about the Collatz conjecture and the latter about non-transitive dice. I thought this would be a very close match-up, but in fact Harriss ran away with it. Both topics are inherently very interesting and come up regularly on popular math sites, though I think the Collatz conjecture arises more frequently, in part because it is so easy to state and understand, yet fascinatingly eludes proof. Both the idea of it and the resultant pictures/graphics are “beautiful.” It probably makes everyone’s list of favorite topics, and Harriss offered up a nice standard rendition of it.
Still I ended up voting for Taylor, because he took that extra step of showing me something I’d not seen before, in his discussion of non-transitive dice, by bringing up "NON-non-transitive dice," an added side-twist, I found creative and interesting. In retrospect though, Harriss’s post is more strongly VISUAL, while Taylor’s post may require a bit more thinking/imagining/effort on the reader's part and perhaps that’s a handicap in such a contest.
So now I’m thinking that maybe in these matches an advantage comes to the competitor who presents the more visually-appealing (or at least less abstract) math bit. This may also help explain Zoe Griffith’s win over Evelyn Lamb — Evelyn hitting readers with high-dimensional spaces (that can’t be easily pictured or imagined) while Zoe stuck with Benford’s Law and numbers we can all relate to in everyday lives.
Despite those who argue anyone can learn math, I’ve long believed there is a large swathe of people who have real difficulties with “abstraction” (which is fundamental to math) and hit mental blocks because of it. I’ve known folks for example who if asked what “3 apples plus 2 apples” is, will immediately respond 5 apples, but if asked “what is 3x + 2x?” are immediately confused and uncertain, so powerful is this blockage when symbols are introduced.
One thing we don’t know is who the bulk of voters are in this contest… professional and/or amateur mathematicians, or is there a major contingent of lay people who just enjoy reading mathy stuff? I don’t know? But to the extent there is a latter group, easy-to-follow and visually-attractive posts may likely win out — or, hey, maybe I'm looking for patterns that don’t exist (and the results are much more random)! At any rate, participants turned in all there entries before the contest began, so nothing I say here can influence what they will be presenting.
My own actual daily picks have been fairly abysmal, picking only 4 out of the 12 winners (well, one not fully settled yet). As usual, I'm out of step with the masses. :(((
Anyway, we're almost down to the Final Four, and in one more week we'll know the names of the two final jousters. Better stock up on some popcorn and beer (or Guinness) now.