I’m hosting the Carnival of Mathematics tomorrow, which is a little strange for me, since this is not actually a math blog.
Why not? I’m a mathematician, after all, and I spend the majority of my day thinking about math — so why don’t I blog about it very much?
I once had a conversation with a colleague of mine in mathematical physics about people who announce important results and then take a long time writing them up. I was complaining about such people, and my colleague was defending them. There are good arguments on both sides, of course. On one hand, if “everyone knows” that X has proved Y, nobody’s going to work on Y — but people may also be reluctant to prove things that depend on Y, since the proof hasn’t appeared. So a whole area of inquiry can get stuck. On the other hand, when things are rushed into print, there can be mistakes, or just inadequate explanations, and once the paper’s published it may be a long time before the author or someone else writes a really readable version. Anyway, my friend and I went back and forth on this for a while, and finally he said, “But really, why is it so annoying to you to have to wait a month or two to see the proof?”
And that’s when the lightbulb went on. For him, “a long time” meant “a month.” For me, it means “two years.” Physics is fast. Math is slow.
And I like that about math. I like that I don’t have to anxiously scan the new number theory postings on the arXiv each morning for new developments, and I like that I’ll never have to finish a paper by nightfall in order to avoid being scooped. In math we let our ideas simmer a long time before we share them with our colleagues, and even longer before we make them public. We’re contemplatives.
Math blogging, in some ways, works against that. If I blogged about my mathematics as it happened, what you’d see is a lot of first drafts, and a lot of “whoops! I take that back.” Wouldn’t you rather just read my paper, when I carefully, thoughtfully, and eventually, write it?
- This is really an explanation of why I don’t blog about math I’m working on. It doesn’t apply to blogging of the form “Here’s a recent paper someone just posted on the arXiv, and here’s why I think it’s interesting,” a la Not Even Wrong. This kind of mathblogging is an unmixed good and maybe I’ll start doing more of it.
- An interesting counterargument might be something like: “Blogging about your mathematical ideas makes those ideas available to people outside your circle of elite research universities — since you do talk informally about these ideas with your colleagues inside this circle, it’s undemocratic and bad not to make them available to outsiders.” I haven’t decided whether this counterargument makes sense or not.