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I'm searching for a compresensive and somewhat complete list of suggested standard notation (the symbols one ought to use in (theoretical) physics and also mathematics).

Is there such a collection, has someone thought about that, or should I do it myself?

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The big difficult is that there isn't a unified idea of standard notation, especially on the leading edge. Notation tends to be ideosyncratic at first and to grow more standardized over time (partially due to influential papers and books, I suppose). But you still find differences in stuff that has been around for ages (e.g. cosmologist draw space--time diagrams with time vertical and particle physicist draw Feynman diagrams with time horizontal or the $N$ different ways of organizing classical E&M). – dmckee Jul 10 '12 at 13:43
I'm almost a little hesitant to say this, but I think this is an excellent use of the soft-question and reference-request tags (and a useful question too). – David Z Jul 11 '12 at 1:53
@DavidZaslavsky: You hesitate because It's not mainstream? – NikolajK Jul 11 '12 at 7:19
I hesitate just because I wasn't sure there was such a thing as a good use of the soft-question tag ;-) – David Z Jul 11 '12 at 20:58
@DavidZaslavsky: That's funny, all the questions I really would want an answer to (questions I'd not be able to answer by reading the right books/articles) are "soft" or meta questions. – NikolajK Jul 11 '12 at 22:33
up vote 3 down vote accepted

As @dmckee suggested in his comment, the leading edge and more specialized fields often haven't fully standardized on a preferred notation. My experience with that is that individual authors and/or journals will summarize their notation in a table at the beginning or end of a text book or journal article. For more established notation, I have found the following.

Quoting from the ACS Style Guide (3rd Ed), chapter 13 "Conventions in Chemistry," p 255:

Detailed recommendations from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC, are given in the book titled Quantities, Units and Symbols in Physical Chemistry, 2nd Edition, nicknamed the "green book," published by Blackwell Science, Oxford, U.K., 1993. Updates are published as articles in the journal Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Detailed recommendations from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO, are given in the ISO Standards Handbook 2, Quantities and Units, published by ISO, Geneva, Switzerland, 1993. Some individual standards have been amended, and their updates are available at the National Institute of Standards (NIST) Special Publication 330, 2001 Edition, available at, is the U.S. updated edition of the English version of the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures.

All of those links work, though none of them are directly useful. The IUPAC website eventually led me to their Gold Book, which contains this table of recommended symbols for physical quantities. Appendix 13-1 of the ACS Style Guide is called "Symbols for Commonly Used Physical Quantities," and contains several tables, organized by field, of common physics and chemistry quantities. In addition, the most recent edition of the CRC Handbook that I own is the 86th (2004-2005). Section 2 of that edition is titled "Symbols, Terminology, and Nomenclature." In addition to the tables of symbols and abbreviations, it also contains a table of the Hebrew, Greek, and Russian alphabets, and several pages of definitions of common scientific terms. The CRC Handbook also cites the IPUAC Red Book and the ISO Standards book. It also cites a book called Symbols, Units, Nomenclature, and Fundamental Constants in Physics, Document IUPAP-25, 1987; also published in Physica, 146A 1-68, 1987 (items 3-9 on the linked page, but note that Elsevier will want $31.50 each for those seven items).

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Thanks. It'll probably not get any better then that IUPAC link you gave, so I give you green light. – NikolajK Jul 11 '12 at 7:41

There are no standards, except for basic concepts. See

In general, it is good practice to follow the notation of one of the most cited books or papers in a particular area, though if you work on the interface between two rhieores, you may need deviations as neigboring fields sometimes have conflicting usage of notation.

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Thanks. (I accepted an answer shortly before this post, even if it's equally interesting.) The history link is interesting too. – NikolajK Jul 11 '12 at 7:44
@NickKidman: I added a second one. – Arnold Neumaier Jul 11 '12 at 7:47
I happens from time to time that people ask me these kind of history questions. I'd usually say "It was probably Bourbaki", but now I can go ignorat and just post the link, adding "Oh, and tell me once you've found out!". – NikolajK Jul 11 '12 at 7:51
@NickKidman: Actually, the modern mathematical notation was mostly coined by Peano (e.g., element of sign) and Gibbs (e.g., cross product). - The Wikipedia article has many useful additional links at the bottom. – Arnold Neumaier Jul 11 '12 at 7:54

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