Saturday, February 07, 2009

Pohler's Proof Theory

I've started struggling through Wolfram Pohler's recent Proof Theory: The First Step Into Impredicativity. And it is, I'm afraid, a struggle -- for a textbook exposition "pitched at undergraduate/graduate level", it is really quite unnecessarily hard going. For example, I can't imagine that anyone who hasn't already encountered the idea would have much hope of cottoning on to what is going on with the Veblen hierarchy from the discussion in Sec. 3.4. And even if you are very familiar with completeness proofs for first-order logic, it's made ridiculously hard work to see what's going in the completeness proof in Sec. 4.4.

I'll certainly keep ploughing on through, given the book's coverage. But not with relish. Why on earth write like this, without the introductory informal motivating comments and explanations of concept definitions and proof ideas that you'd give in lectures? I'm quite baffled that anyone can think that this is the right way to write a book intended for a student readership.

Anonymous comments: I think this is the usual way of writing a math book. Most, if not all, math books are written this way.

I don't think that's entirely true. I'm sitting here surrounded my shelves of relatively recent maths books, both pure and applied maths (dating from when I was writing my chaos book ten years ago, or teaching the philosophy of space-time theories). They do illustrate a whole spectrum of modes of presentation from rather relaxed to take-no-prisoners relentless formality. To be sure, there are too many of the latter kind -- but it is possible to do better!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think this is the usual way of writing a math book. Most, if not all, math books are written this way. I am sure that's different in philosophy.

Aatu Koskensilta said...

I haven't gotten to reading Pohler's book yet, so can't really comment on that.

Picking a random text on my shelf, Sack's Higher recursion theory, I find it contains, on most topics, an informative overview, brief historical remarks now and then, motivation, and discussion of the significance of the results established. The book is by no means unique in this.

It is, I feel, quite unfair to say most, if not all, books in mathematics are written the way Peter finds frustrating. (Admittedly, there are some truly awful examples of awfulness out there, such as Kleene's and Vesley's text on foundations of intuitionism and Vopenka's The Theory of Semi-Sets.)

Anonymous said...

a whole spectrum of modes of presentation from rather relaxed to take-no-prisoners relentless formality. To be sure, there are too many of the latter kind -- but it is possible to do better!These are not the two available options at all. The optimal is to be strictly formal and readable. These two faculties are independent, i.e., one does not exclude the other.
In fact, if I have to choose between a book which is informal, non-self contained, too relaxed, and on the other hand a strictly formal one, I certainly choose the latter. I'm not willing to read a mathematical book, and struggle with the proofs, when I have a slight suspicion about its accuracy.