The Mathematical Dialect Quiz

  1. What do you call a rigorous demonstration that a statement is true?
    1. If “proof,” then you’re a mathematician
    2. If “experiment,” then you’re a physicist
    3. If you have no word for this concept, then you’re an economist

  1. What do you call a slow, painful, computationally intense method of solving a problem?
    1. If “engineering,” then you’re a mathematician
    2. If “mathematics,” then you’re an engineer

  1. What do you call a person who is in their first job after a PhD?
    1. If “postdoc,” then you’re a mathematician or physicist
    2. If “assistant professor,” then you’re an economist
    3. If “wealthy,” then you’re a computer scientist
    4. If you have no word for a job after a PhD, then you’re in the humanities, and you have our condolences

  1. What do you call a calculator with graphing capabilities?
    1. If “an antique,” then you’re a computer scientist
    2. If “my precious,” then you’re an engineer
    3. If “the poor man’s Wolfram Alpha,” then you’re a mathematician
    4. If “kinda hard to use,” then you’re an honest mathematician

  1. How do you pronounce “Pythagorean”?
    1. If you pronounce it “pithAGorEan,” then you’re a mathematician
    2. If you pronounce it “PITHaGORean,” then you’re a physicist
    3. If you just mumble the word and hope no one notices, then you’re a TA

  1. What name do you use for the person who invented calculus?
    1. If “Leibniz,” then you’re a mathematician
    2. If “Newton,” then you’re a physicist
    3. If “magical wizard,” then you’re probably not ready for grad school

  1. What do you say after successfully proving your point beyond all doubt?
    1. If “QED,” then you’re a mathematician
    2. If “the prosecution rests,” then you’re a mathematician with a flair for drama
    3. If you do not believe proof beyond all doubt is possible, then you’re a scientist

  1. What do you call a simplified representation of reality, such as imagining a physical system with no friction or air resistance?
    1. If “a model,” then you’re a computer scientist
    2. If “an approximation,” then you’re an engineer
    3. If you call this “reality,” then you’re an economist

  1. How do you refer to a piece of work that suffers from one small but visible mistake?
    1. If “rough,” then you’re an engineer
    2. If “as good as it’s going to get,” then you’re a computer scientist
    3. If “worthless,” then you’re a mathematician

  1. What do you call a formal gathering of professionals from your field?
    1. If “a conference,” then you’re a physicist
    2. If “a start-up,” then you’re a computer scientist
    3. If “an advisory panel to the president,” then you’re an economist
    4. If “a game of D&D,” then you’re a mathematician

Thanks for reading! If you prefer bad gifs to bad drawings, you might also check out The Math Aficionado’s Guide to High Fives.

67 thoughts on “The Mathematical Dialect Quiz

  1. I remember taking my first undergrad-level class in electrical after getting my physics degree. It took me forever to figure out how to do imaginary numbers on my seldom-used calculator. I still don’t know that I can graph things very well.

    1. Yeah, graphing calculators are still my Achilles heel – something I really need to work on, for my students’ sake.

      I remember walking up to my AP Calculus teacher the week before the test, saying, “How do you use this thing?” I don’t think I’d turned it on more than once or twice all year.

      (And I never even THOUGHT about doing complex numbers on a graphing calculator! Although obviously they should have that capability.)

      1. These days, if you can’t use a graphing calculator, then you are sunk on the AP test. For example — what if they ask you to integrate cos(x^2) from, say, 0 to 0.6? ? Some calculators can do it, but for all intents and purposes you can’t do it by hand at all.! And that was on the 2013 AP calc BC test.

        1. Yeah, I always made sure to cover the really essential stuff with my students. (Graph equations; find roots; compute definite integrals.) But I know there’s tons of untapped power I wasn’t telling them about.

        2. That formula is a nice trick, but in this case, it’s the input (x) being squared, not the output (cosx). Also, even if it were (cosx)^2, I wouldn’t be able to compute the cosine of 1.2 radians by hand

  2. This was excellent and terribly funny 😀 and I love that you included us unemployed English majors haha

  3. I like exactness and proofs and writing QED, and find that I consider mistake-ridden work worthless, so in that sense I’m a mathematician. But I’m lazy, and will take an easy approximation any day, which is why I’m an engineer by trade. (Although I never relied too much on my graphing calculator, and never got the hang of the actual graphing or the more complex capabilities it offered.) I really enjoyed this post!

  4. Well, I’m a Communications and Mass Media major who took mostly English classes, left without graduating to enter a Ph.D. program, left that shortly after, went on to a 30-year career as a computer programmer, and am now working as a professional ontologist. What does that make me?

        1. I try my best, yes, though the full philological research program (to understand ancient cultures through their languages and literatures) is now too capacious for any one person to carry out. I should perhaps have mentioned that I spent my first undergraduate year as a physics major, and I remain a scientific American.

  5. Great post! Your Newton and Leibniz are definitely not Bad Drawings. I’m curious if there is a word for what mathematicians might call a simplified representation of reality?

    1. Mathematicians don’t care much about reality in the first place; they’re always working with abstractions and idealizations. So I think they just call it “mathematics”!

  6. As a Physicist student, i disagree with the calculus one. Leibniz is for Physics, Cauchy for Matematics!

  7. Hysterical.

    I have friends who like discussing quantum physics/reality and friends who are mathy.

    Unfortunately, they are the same friend and I have to smack him on the forehead every few sentences to get him to stop using math analogies for everything as if they were Aesop’s Fables.

  8. Must show this to my math-major boyfriend! It also reminds me of the time I tried to teach a group of nine-year-olds how to do proofs:
    “But why can’t you just say it’s true?”
    “Because I’m in high school.”
    “What else do they teach you in high school?”
    “Right – uh who wants to learn how to count in Spanish?”

    That went over so well I majored in it!

  9. Ha ha. A great post!

    As a communications / public policy major who took maths and economics but likes to watch tv about physics and has friends in engineering, I have only just enough enough knowledge to appreciate this post!

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