Trying maths live on Twitter

Once upon a time, I decided I would be vulnerable on Twitter. As part of that, when someone posted a puzzle that I was interested in, I decided that I would not wait until I had a complete answer to a problem before I responded, but instead I would tweet out my partial thinking. If there were mistakes I would leave them there and respond with how I resolved them, rather than deleting them and removing the evidence that I had made a mistake. I wanted the whole process of solving problems to be out there in plain sight for everyone to see.

One reason I wanted to do this was because too often we give the impression that maths is all so slick and easy, when really it is actually messy and hard. This issue is exacerbated by the nature of puzzles, which often have clever simple solutions, and when people share only that, we give this impression that maths is done by some sort of divine inspiration of the clever trick. I wanted my responses to problems to show the honest process of muddling through things, and getting them wrong, and only seeing the clever idea after I’ve done it the unclever way, and even if a clever way did occur to me, what it was that made me think of it.

Over time, this has grown into me doing epically long tweet threads where I live-tweet my whole solution process, including all the extra bits I ask myself that are sideways from or beyond the original goal of the problem. I have to say I really really love doing this. I love puzzles and learning new things, and it’s nice to do it and count it as part of my job. I also get to have a record of the whole process for posterity to look back on. Even in the moment, it’s very interesting to have to force myself to really slow down and be aware of my own thought processes enough to tweet them as I go. In my daily work I have to help other people to think, so the sort of self-awareness that this livetweeting of my thought process brings is very useful to me, not to mention fascinating.

In the beginning, I had some trouble with people seeing my rhetorical questions as cries for help and jumping in to try to tell me what to do. I also had people tell me off for not presenting the most elegant solution, saying “Wouldn’t this be easier?” Every so often I still get that happening, but it’s rarer now that I have started to become known for this sort of thing. I am extremely grateful that a few people seem to really love it when I do this, especially John Rowe, who by rights could be really annoyed at me filling up his notifications with hundreds of tweets with a high frequency of “hmm”.

I plan to continue to do this, and so if you want to keep an eye out for it, then I’ll happily let you come watch. From this point forward I will use the hashtag #trymathslive when I first begin one of these live problem-solving sessions, so I can find them later and you can see when I’m about to do it. (I had a lot of trouble looking for these tweet threads, until I remembered that a word I use often when I am doing this is “try” and I searched for my own handle and “try”. In fact, that’s the inspiration for the hashtag I plan to use.)

Note that I am actually happy for people to join in with me — it doesn’t have to be a solitary activity. I would prefer it if you also didn’t know the solution to the problem at the point when you joined in, but were also being authentic in your sharing of your actual half-formed thoughts. I definitely don’t want people telling me their pre-existing answers or trying to push me in certain directions. If you feel like you must “help” then, asking me why I did something, or what things I am noticing about some aspect of the problem or my own solution are useful ways to help me push my own thinking along whatever path it is going rather than making my thinking conform to someone else’s. I will attempt to do the same for you.

To finish off, here are a LOT of these live trying maths sessions. (If you click on the tweet, you’ll go to the thread without having to log into twitter. You’ll have to scroll up a tweet or two to get to the original problem and scroll down, often a long long way, to find what happened.) I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed doing them.

4th July 2019

28th June 2019

23rd June 2019

12th June 2019

May 28 2019

May 17 2019

17th April 2019

20th March 2019

24th February 2019

21st February 2019

28th November 2018

5th November 2018

14th October 2018

4th October 2018

11th March 2018

21st Janurary 2018

5th December 2017

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