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Math has more aspects than just logical deduction via mechanical rules. Math also has an aesthetic aspect that guides people to find elegant, powerful solutions within the space defined by the mechanical rules. There may be many paths of deduction from point A to point B, which are all mechanically equally valid. But from the human point of view, they have different value. Some will be simple and easy to understand; others will rely on ideas from one or another realm of math, making them friendly to people who understand those ideas. Some will suggest, to the human brain, analogies to other problems. The mathematical validity of the argument is judged according to whether it correctly follows the mechanical rules, but all other aspects are judged by aesthetics and intuition and ultimately by how the solution is received and utilized by other mathematicians.

If the only aspect of mathematics that you bring into programming is logical deduction by mechanical rules, then I doubt it will help, except for rare cases where you prove or disprove the correctness of code. If, on the other hand, you bring over the aesthetic concern, the drive to make painfully difficult ideas more beautiful (ergonomic) for human brains, then it will help you make your code simpler, clearer, and easier for others to work with.

Is this really a common thing? How can you try to implement something without first having had thought of the solution?

It's common, and as you can imagine, it doesn't lead to good outcomes. When people start by coding first, it's so much work they tend to stop at their first solution, no matter how ugly it is. When people start by solving the abstract problem first (at a whiteboard, say) they look at their first solution and think, "I bet I can make this simpler so it's easier to code." The difficulty of coding motivates a bad solution if you start with code and a good solution if you write the code last.




Ah, well, you just described the relative value of math in much the way I'd describe the relative value of... well, just about any intellectual pursuit. Same in philosophy. Or in law. Or in physics.

A lot of people with particular interest in one area -- say, mathematics -- don't realize that much of what is important is much more generally applicable.

It's not that these things are distinctly important for math. It's that they are important for thinking.


That's true to a certain extent, but math and programming share the property of being built up from logical building blocks that are combined in strict logical ways. Law and philosophy are built on language and culture; physics is closer but is empirical. Math and programs are built from logic, and this gives them more of a common aesthetic sense.

For example, in law or philosophy, repeating the same argument multiple times, adapted for different circumstances, can give it weight. In math and programming, the weight of repetition is dead weight that people strive to eliminate. In law and philosophy, arguments are built out of words and shared assumptions that change over time; in math, new definitions can be added, and terms can be confusingly overloaded, but old definitions remain accessible in a way that old cultural assumptions are not accessible to someone writing a legal argument.

In physics, the real world is a given, and we approximate it as best we can. In math and software, reality is chosen from the systems we are able to construct. Think of all the things in our society that would be different if they were not constrained by our ability to construct software. Traffic, for one — there would be no human drivers and almost zero traffic deaths.

Where programming differs from math is that math is limited only by human constraints. Running programs on real hardware imposes additional constraints that interact with the human ones.


Modern computing is empirical. That's why MIT switched their intro to CS class from Scheme theory of computation to Python robot controllers.


It’s possible I am misunderstanding you, but think I agree with this.

There’s kind of two ideas going on here (in this thread in general), I think.

One seems to be of a mindset I’d describe as thinking in math means glomming onto knowing linear algebra.

The other seems to be thinking in interconnections, minimalist definitions, and those abstract concepts that exist in math (and all kinds of things) for connecting discrete ideas into composite ideas.

One thing that bugs me is code with overly specific semantics, where it reads like that’s the only problem the code could solve.

When if it’s broken into concepts and abstraction in the PLANNING stage the code ends up being less verbose and descriptive of the human problem and more useful for a variety of problems.

So instead of code to balance a checkbook, I’d write code to add/subtract numbers and input numbers from my checking account.

I see a whole lot of code with too much specific semantic meaning. And it ends in practice that we think code in one system is highly specific to that system and minimizes effort to reuse.

At least that’s been my experience at work. Ymmv


I see math as the language of thinking. Math doesn’t really have a domain beyond: how do we think, how do we know, and how do we communicate our knowledge. The progression of mathematics has been the systematic removal of domain. Numbers are widely applicable because they are very abstract and devoid of domain, and they are one of the least abstract things in mathematics.

I agree with your gist, there are lots of things where studying that thing is virtuous beyond its direct application. But also, I’d contend that thought is the subject of mathematics and not just a virtuous side-effect.


Math, properly done, is rigorous formal thinking. And it lets us think things we normally couldn't. Nobody can visualize a 100 dimensional object, but a mathematician can easily work with one.

And as programmers we work with mathematical objects called state spaces, that have vastly more than 100 dimensions.

That said one can easily be a competent programmer without having much formal mathematical knowledge much like one can easily be a competent ball player without knowing the differential calculus. However, just as modern ball players improve their games with computer aided mathematical analysis of their swings and so on, a programmer can improve the quality of his output by mathematical analysis, in particular via the use of the predicate calculus and its, in my opinion, most useful application of loop analysis.




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