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McCallum, Kate. Untangling Knots: Embodied Diagramming Practices in Knot Theory
2019, Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, 9(1): 178-199.
Added by: Fenner Stanley Tanswell
The low visibility and specialised languages of mathematical work pose challenges for the ethnographic study of communication in mathematics, but observation-based study can offer a real-world grounding to questions about the nature of its methods. This paper uses theoretical ideas from linguistic pragmatics to examine how mutual understandings of diagrams are achieved in the course of conference presentations. Presenters use shared knowledge to train others to interpret diagrams in the ways favoured by the community of experts, directing an audience’s attention so as to develop a shared understanding of a diagram’s features and possible manipulations. In this way, expectations about the intentions of others and appeals to knowledge about the manipulation of objects play a part in the development and communication of concepts in mathematical discourse.

Comment (from this Blueprint): McCallum is an ethnographer and artist, who in this piece explores the way in which mathematicians use diagrams in conference presentations, especially in knot theory. She emphasises that there are a large number of ways that diagrams can facilitate communication and understanding. The diagrams are dynamic in many way, and she shows how the way in which a speaker interacts with the diagram (through drawing, erasing, labelling, positioning, emphasising etc.) is part of explaining the mathematics it represents.

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