09 January 2008

What does a blind mathematician do? (No, this is not a joke.)

T. V. Raman, a blind computer scientist who was trained as a mathematician, writes Thinking Of Mathematics —An Essay On Eyes-free Computing.

I think that even sighted mathematicians will get something from this, because the main issues for a visually impaired mathematician are that they cannot read or write in the usual way, and many of us do work in a situation where reading or writing is not available to us. Much of my best work gets done while walking to or from school, which is why I refuse to take SEPTA even though it would be faster. Plus, I get exercise that way. I've often taken to calling my own cell phone and dictating the solution to a problem into my voice mail. But this clearly isn't the same thing, because in the end I write things up in the traditional way.

Not surprisingly, Raman seems to find that the largest difficulties come in trying to communicate with other mathematicians, although this is becoming less of an issue as mathematics moves online, especially with the proliferation of TeX. (But this raises a question for me: often I write TeX that isn't strictly correct, but compiles anyway, and gives the right output on the page. How do systems like Raman's AS TE R (Audio System for TEchnical Readings, his Ph. D. thesis) handle this?


Maria H. Andersen said...

I'm working on a blog post about how you can use some of the Design Science software for accessibility. Bob (the MathType guy) demoed it for me on Sunday and it's really cool and seems pretty accurate. He said he would make a short video to show us a demo of the software online for me to post, so I guess I'm saying... stay tuned!

dimpase said...

Pontryagin was blind (since his teen years), and it didn't prevent him from doing maths. (Although he for many years was helped a lot by him mother, who read for him)

Anonymous said...

The question: How Does A System Like AsTeR Handle ``Incorrect''
is a deep one and not easy to answer in a margin;-)

Here are some high-level issues that come up and were addressed
in AsTeR:

0. In a system like AsTeR one needs to handle both correct and
incorrect math notation because otherwise you wouldn't be able to
speak things that were incorrect, and if you couldn't the user
depending on the system would never be able to correct things.

1. AsTeR was the system that taught me the importance of good
markup -- that discipline has stayed with me through LaTeX and
now in XHTML. Though people kick and scream with respect to
writing correct markup --- no one appears to complain when it
comes to writing correct programs --- the disconnect continues to
remain a mystery to me.
The argument usually goes "everyone needs to write documents,
only some people need to program" -- but I assert that that
distinction is getting increasingly blurred -- and as it does
so, it would be wise to bring some of the discipline that
software engineering teaches us to the art of writing.

For the gruesome details on how AsTeR handled complex TeX, and
what it could and couldn't do, see my PhD thesis that does
document the details.

Anonymous said...

Oh, people complain all the time about writing correct programs. Or they just don't do it. The program just needs to work well enough.

Maria H. Andersen said...

And... here it is! A math reader for blind students. Link here