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Programming and Storytelling

Recently I looked in Papadimitriou’s website looking for something else and found this great article called: “MythematiCS: In Praise of Storytelling in the Teaching of Computer Science and Math”. He begins by pointing out the in early times knowledge was transferred mostly by storytelling – and there is much more place in contemporary technical teaching to storytelling than most of people realize. He has several interesting points: one of them is that we can think of writting a computer program as telling a story. For example, the variables are the characters: they have characteristics (data types) and the whole story (program) is about playing around with them. Sometimes they have multiple faces and behaviors depending on the circumstance (polymorphism). Iteration and recursion are common literary tools, used for example in fairy tales “in the first day, this happens, in the second day, that happens, then…” or “he might be able to do that just if he does that…”. He mentions one of my favourite books: “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” as a great example of recursion. This made me think that maybe Italo Calvino is my favourite author because his stories are so beautifully constructed in an almost mathematical fashion – like an Escher paiting orÂ  Bach music. They went very far in showing the beauty of math and showing it is really one art. For example, this beautiful representation of the hyperbolic plane:

Back to programming there are still a lot of interesting relations: several novels are multi-threaded. We look at the novels from perspectives of multiple characters. Stories also need to “compile and run”, which in this case mean, make sense and be accepted by people. I was thinking that there are a lot of books which everyone knows about but very few people have ever read (Ulisses, for example). Are those NP-complete problems?

Back to Papadimitriou’s article, he talks about a few interesting books that do a good job in mixing together math and stories. One that he mentions I read a long time ago, still when I was in high-school and it did a great job in further stimulating me on math. The book was The Parrot’s Theorem. Recently I also read one other book that he mentioned: Surreal Numbers, by Don Knuth. Although I am a great fan of almost everything Knuth writes, this book didn’t caught me much. I think it may be because I am not the right audience. If I read it a couple of years back I might have enjoyed it much more.

When I was in Greece last year, I came across this very interesting comic book: Logicomix. It was in Greek but just by looking into it I figured out it was something about math and it seemed pretty cool. Later I found out this was written by Papadimitriou and Doxiadis, which made me even more curious to read it. Now I am waiting the English translation of it. One last pointer: Doxiadis has a webpage with some interesting essays about the relations of mathematical proofs, computer programming and storytelling.

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MythematiCS: (1)

In Praise of Storytelling in the Teaching of
Computer Science and Math

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