I’ve been a fan of interface and software designer Bret Victor’s work since Craig (one of our designers) tipped me off about him. Bret made a splash a while back with his Magic Ink paper. Now Fast Company has profiled him and his Kill Math series. “Kill Math” is all about using smartly designed interfaces to make math tangible and playful, something you can experience instead of just think about.

Have you ever tried multiplying roman numerals? It’s incredibly, ridiculously difficult. That’s why, before the 14th century, everyone thought that multiplication was an incredibly difficult concept, and only for the mathematical elite. Then arabic numerals came along, with their nice place values, and we discovered that even seven-year-olds can handle multiplication just fine. There was nothing difficult about the concept of multiplication—the problem was that numbers, at the time, had a bad user interface.

It’s a nice piece (I only wish it was longer) and Bret surely deserves your attention if you are a fan of innovative UI design.

Ryan wrote this on Jul 18 2011
There are9 comments.

Anonymous Coward

on 18 Jul 11

The GUI is pretty but is sooooo specific to that mathematical problem being solved it’d be hard to reuse.

Hence why the universal approach to visualizing data has always been to simply “plot it”.

Anonymous Coward

on 18 Jul 11

Yeah, pretty. Nothing new here though, people have been doing visualizations of formulas and mathematical relationships for as long as computers have existed… and behind the scenes? Still the numbers and equations modeled in a programming language, which in itself is a confusing and unreachable medium for the general public. Hardly comparable to the shift from Roman to Arabic numerals… more comparable to the shift from stone tablets to paper as a way to visualize and work with data, but that’s an old story at this point.

Fun concepts, but as someone above posted, not much new here. The best example I can think of is the picture on Wikipedia that shows the value of Pi animated with it’s relation to a circle. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pi-unrolled-720.gif

Before visualizing it like that, Pi just existed in my head as a magic number, now with that animation I can clearly understand that Pi is a NATURAL number.

EMK

on 18 Jul 11

Interesting idea. Reminded me of the Octomatics idea I read about a long time ago:
http://www.infoverse.org/octomatics/octomatics.htm

I think he may have missed that this is kind of what Matlab/Maple/Mathematica do. It’s not as easy to play around with though, there is a learning curve before you can use those tools to “explore” mathematics.

But is point about finding the “stable form” of the equation was pretty interesting. In the tools mentioned above there are usually “solve” commands that you can use to do that without having to play around in a graph at all though.

A slightly different, but I think related, visualization is that used by Hans Rosling to show a lot of statistics in an understandable form (http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen.html).

I think it would be pretty cool if some of the techniques Bret shows here were combined with the web based mathematics processing platform Sage (http://www.sagemath.org/). (It gives you some of the possibilities of Matlab/Maple/Mathematica in your browser. For free! And open source.) That could make it a really good work tool for anyone learning math/physics and stuff like that.

Even better if it was possible to get raw data from things like wikipedia (eg for country populations and stuff like that) and make it easy to put that information into your calculations. That could possibly also make it a lot more motivating for kids to learn math. (Not that many kids learn differential equations.)

Rahul

on 19 Jul 11

Thanks for sharing, Ryan! I remember reading Magic Ink years ago and never realised Bret had a twitter account.

On my blog, I expressed some reservations related to the ultimate value of introducing interaction in the learning process, and in particular to these types of mathematical subjects, and subsequently had an interesting conversation with Bret in the comments.

There was nothing difficult about the concept of multiplication—the problem was that numbers, at the time, had a bad user interface.

Matt

on 20 Jul 11

I think the development gap that he talks about is larger than he makes it out. This kind of manipulation is hard for many developers(he specifically mentions it being impossible for designers). So the population of people that can accomplish this are even smaller than just the population of developers. there are some issues with things like calling ‘paintWindow’ as fast as you can that can complicate things. Just some of the problems that I had last time i tried to do similar window control manipulation. This is why you get 5 pics instead. because adding a picture is trivial. Not saying its right, but just my thoughts on what I’ve seen.

This discussion is closed.

About Ryan

Ryan's been getting to the bottom of things at Basecamp since 2003.

this onJul 18 2011There are9 comments.## Anonymous Coward

on 18 Jul 11The GUI is pretty but is sooooo specific to that mathematical problem being solved it’d be hard to reuse.

Hence why the universal approach to visualizing data has always been to simply “plot it”.

## Anonymous Coward

on 18 Jul 11Yeah, pretty. Nothing new here though, people have been doing visualizations of formulas and mathematical relationships for as long as computers have existed… and behind the scenes? Still the numbers and equations modeled in a programming language, which in itself is a confusing and unreachable medium for the general public. Hardly comparable to the shift from Roman to Arabic numerals… more comparable to the shift from stone tablets to paper as a way to visualize and work with data, but that’s an old story at this point.

## Neil N

on 18 Jul 11Fun concepts, but as someone above posted, not much new here. The best example I can think of is the picture on Wikipedia that shows the value of Pi animated with it’s relation to a circle. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pi-unrolled-720.gif

Before visualizing it like that, Pi just existed in my head as a magic number, now with that animation I can clearly understand that Pi is a NATURAL number.

## EMK

on 18 Jul 11Interesting idea. Reminded me of the Octomatics idea I read about a long time ago: http://www.infoverse.org/octomatics/octomatics.htm

## Marcus Hast

on 19 Jul 11I think he may have missed that this is kind of what Matlab/Maple/Mathematica do. It’s not as easy to play around with though, there is a learning curve before you can use those tools to “explore” mathematics.

But is point about finding the “stable form” of the equation was pretty interesting. In the tools mentioned above there are usually “solve” commands that you can use to do that without having to play around in a graph at all though.

A slightly different, but I think related, visualization is that used by Hans Rosling to show a lot of statistics in an understandable form (http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen.html).

I think it would be pretty cool if some of the techniques Bret shows here were combined with the web based mathematics processing platform Sage (http://www.sagemath.org/). (It gives you some of the possibilities of Matlab/Maple/Mathematica in your browser. For free! And open source.) That could make it a really good work tool for anyone learning math/physics and stuff like that.

Even better if it was possible to get raw data from things like wikipedia (eg for country populations and stuff like that) and make it easy to put that information into your calculations. That could possibly also make it a lot more motivating for kids to learn math. (Not that many kids learn differential equations.)

## Rahul

on 19 Jul 11Thanks for sharing, Ryan! I remember reading Magic Ink years ago and never realised Bret had a twitter account.

## Matt Henderson

on 19 Jul 11On my blog, I expressed some reservations related to the ultimate value of introducing interaction in the learning process, and in particular to these types of mathematical subjects, and subsequently had an interesting conversation with Bret in the comments.

http://www.thisux.com/2011/05/02/reservations-about-our-choice-and-the-push-pop-press-vision-of-tomorrows-books/

## Mark

on 19 Jul 11There was nothing difficult about the concept of multiplication—the problem was that numbers, at the time, had a bad user interface.

## Matt

on 20 Jul 11I think the development gap that he talks about is larger than he makes it out. This kind of manipulation is hard for many developers(he specifically mentions it being impossible for designers). So the population of people that can accomplish this are even smaller than just the population of developers. there are some issues with things like calling ‘paintWindow’ as fast as you can that can complicate things. Just some of the problems that I had last time i tried to do similar window control manipulation. This is why you get 5 pics instead. because adding a picture is trivial. Not saying its right, but just my thoughts on what I’ve seen.

## This discussion

isclosed.