Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

How do you read/approach symbols?

  1. Feb 16, 2013 #1
    When you're solving a problem or simply reading some text, what goes through your mind when you approach a symbol? Do you interpret it the symbolic name, something it looks similar to, or what it represents?

    Lately I'm starting to take notice to how weak my grasp of symbols is. I avoid writing/pronouncing the symbols, instead I choose to write out what it represents or if I'm working independently a variable of my choosing. Is that a harmless habit or one that needs to be kicked to the curb?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 16, 2013 #2


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Can you provide examples of the types of symbols to which you are referring?
  4. Feb 16, 2013 #3
    Uh here is a random example, not my specific example (couldn't find it online and I don't know how to get all that on here): http://gyazo.com/8071fbc94c6c95f95da39a247cdb4fdb
    If you were to see that would you be saying to yourself:
    - P equals F times Upsilon times cosine of theta
    - P equals F times U times cosine of O
    - Substituting the actual, scientific name, in place (ex. speed/velocity not upsilon)
    - Or whatever you do.
  5. Feb 16, 2013 #4
    That's a v, not an upsilon. It stands for velocity. This fact is far more important than how you say it to yourself, but v does help the memory better than upsilon does. Using O for theta doesn't seem to accomplish anything good unless you can explain to me what the advantages are. The disadvantage is that O might crop up in some other context and then confusion may arise. The bottom line though is that it doesn't matter how you say it to yourself, it matters if you understand what it means. I.e. Power is force dot velocity.
  6. Feb 16, 2013 #5

    Ben Niehoff

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I think a lot of times I don't vocalize formulas inside my head. I'm more visual.

    When I do vocalize them, they're more abbreviated. I read that as "P equals F v cos theta", because that's what it looks like (generally speaking, I would avoid using lowercase upsilon). Sometimes I call Greek letters by Latin names (if the symbols are similar in appearance), such as A for alpha, B for beta. It runs faster in my head that way.
  7. Feb 16, 2013 #6
    Hmm, I mean it doesn't look like a v or nu to me at all. When I try to copy it straight over it turns to a v, so I'm not sure what it actually is. Uh so if you were to say attempt to grade someones paper, and they had that written with utterly random symbols it would still be okay?
    Alright thank you, and that is essentially what I've been doing.
  8. Feb 16, 2013 #7


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    I read the symbols as per their greek names, except in cases where the Greek letter is indistinguishable from the Latin letter, e.g. A, B. I would never read ##\omega## as "w" or ##\nu## ("nu") as "v", except by accident.

    I was eating dinner at a sandwich shop on campus last week and I overheard some girls at a nearby table talking about their chemistry homework and photon energies. They kept saying "h v" rather than "h nu". I couldn't help but shudder. =P

    How you read it is up to you, I guess, but that's no excuse for not knowing the names of the Greek letters. There's a fair chance you'll one day have to verbally communicate an equation or something to someone who does use the Greek names, and you will confuse them if you don't know the names yourself!

    "The domain wall height scales as the reduced temperature to, uh... one of the standard critical exponents."

    "Which critical exponent? Kappa? Sigma?"

    "No, uh... one of the other Greek letters. The squiggly one."

    "Which squiggly one?"
  9. Feb 16, 2013 #8


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    There's only one way to lick it, and that is just practice. You have already managed to learn 26 English letters Learning 24 Greek letters isn't any harder!

    if you want a "slightly" harder challenge, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thousand_Character_Classic
  10. Feb 16, 2013 #9


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Are there any squiggly ones? Correlation length is usually squiggly, but not sure about the exponents.

    BTW, what is the name of the symbol ℘ for power set? I've never known that one.
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2013
  11. Feb 16, 2013 #10


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    Zeta is typically used as the surface-roughness critical exponent, I think. Zeta is typically confused with xi when people attempt to write it by hand. The example is otherwise somewhat fictional; I don't recall if domain wall heights (really, height-height correlations) scale with temperature in some systems. There's probably a better example.

    In the textbook "Biological physics" by Nelson there's an appendix(?) in which he tells students to learn all of the Greek-letters by name and not to call them all "squiggle".

    I once saw a video about a worker in China commenting that it was so hard to learn english as he had to memorize 26 whole letters. I was a bit baffled by the statement given that he certainly knows thousands of Chinese characters! Perhaps the video was mistranslated and he meant "words". I will have to track down this poem now and see how many of the characters I know. I know somewhere in the vicinity of 500-1000, and I need to keep up my practice, so this might be a nice exercise. It's been hard to keep up these days as I'm not taking a Chinese class this semester!
  12. Feb 16, 2013 #11
    Most likely he was refering to the disconnect between orthography and pronunciation that makes written English seem like a pictographic language, something that Chinese is not.
  13. Feb 16, 2013 #12


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    I see.

    Must be a Harvard thing. Ed Farhi says "squiggle" (only for xi).

    While we're discussing this - does one pronounce "xi" with a "k" in front or not?

    Wow, you know Chinese well! Most people think that Chinese characters don't indicate pronunciation.
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2013
  14. Feb 16, 2013 #13
    I just interpret it as what it represents
    I was like this in my first physics class. I remember wondering what sub f is and why the instructor kept alternating between sub naught and sub i...I blame algebra for that. After a while though, I realised the symbols followed a methodology that was pervasive through other math and science courses and instead of trying to place something under a different variable, I would just recognise it for what it represents. It actually becomes quite beautiful in calculus when you think about that skinny "s" and what it represents (especially for definite integrals) and then you come across sigma in the power and taylor series and then you think....hey they are both summations over an interval, just different functionality. The world gets a little bigger :biggrin:

    The symbol that still annoys me to this day is the symbol for dot product as it is often drawn the same as the symbol for multiplication.
  15. Feb 16, 2013 #14


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    What it represents.

    Sometimes, the symbols just confuse the issue. Arithmetic using Roman numerals is the only sensible way to do arithmetic in your head. But the way Roman numerals are taught tend to obfuscate the issue. People spend more time learning how to write the numerals properly than they do in how the ideas should be used.

    As in you don't add 9 to a number. You add 10 and subtract 1. And so on.

    But you do need to learn the symbols if you're going to communicate with other people.
  16. Feb 17, 2013 #15


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    On this technicality, symbols can look different when displayed in different fonts

    vee upsilon nu
    v.....υ....ν.......Arial italic
    v.....υ....ν.......Times New Roman
    v.....υ....ν.......Times New Roman italic

    v.....υ....ν.......Georgia italic
  17. Feb 17, 2013 #16

    Ben Niehoff

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I would never read ##\nu## as 'v'. I might read ##\mu## and ##\nu## as 'm', 'n'. Especially in differential geometry where people seem to insist on using Greek indices all the time (because they're "curvy"? I don't know).

    It's just a lowercase script 'p'.

    Depends who you're talking to. One of my friends is Greek. He says 'mee', 'nee' for ##\mu, \nu##, 'taff' for ##\tau##, and 'psee', 'ksee', 'hee' for ##\psi, \xi, \chi##, because those are the modern Greek pronunciations. If you talk to him for long enough, you end up saying them that way.

    The leader of the Olympian gods is 'Zeffs', by the way, not 'Zooss'.
  18. Feb 17, 2013 #17


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Same here, I try to get from "what it is" to "what it represents" as soon as possible. A graph helps.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook