Tag Archives: polymath

The Year in Mathematical Ideas

I have a short piece about Tim Gowers’ Polymath project in the 2009 edition of the New York Times Year in Ideas feature.

In January, Timothy Gowers, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge and a holder of the Fields Medal, math’s highest honor, decided to see if the comment section of his blog could prove a theorem he could not.

It’s been years since we’ve been New York Times subscribers; looking at Sunday’s paper I was struck by how much math was in it. In the Year in Ideas section, besides my piece, there’s one about using random walks to identify species critical to the survival of an ecosystem, another about the differential equations governing zombie diffusion, and a third about Nate Silver’s detective work on the fishy final digits of poll results.  (I blogged about DigitGate a few months back.)  Elsewhere in the paper, John Allen Paulos writes about the expected value of early breast cancer screening, and the Book Review takes on Perfect Rigor, Masha Gessen’s new biography of Perelman.  Personally, I think Gessen missed a huge commercial opportunity by not titling the book He’s Just Not That Into Yau.

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Why Math Overflow works, and why it might not

I spent a bunch of time yesterday playing with Math Overflow, the new math Q&A website launched last week by Berkeley grad students David Brown and Anton Gerashchenko. The site is built on the popular Stack Exchange platform, giving users the power not only to ask and answer questions but to vote on other people’s answers, giving those users “reputation points” which they can use to unlock more features of the site.

I was chatting with Tim Gowers last month, in the context of PolyMath, about what made a website “sticky,” or, to put it more pungently, “addictive” — what makes users willing to go back to the same site multiple times a day, and keep it up for weeks or months?  Math Overflow seems to have this quality in a particularly pure form.  Unlike PolyMath — where showing up half a day late might well give you no chance of catching up and making a contribution — Math Overflow offers a constantly changing array of new questions.  Questions to which you might know the answer right off the top of your head — or at least if you take ten minutes to think about it, or just a quick half-hour to scan through some references or…

Now at this point you might say “I could answer this, but I don’t really have the time right now.”  But then somebody else would answer it first! And then you wouldn’t get that warm feeling of helping somebody out!

I think this quality of rightnowness is what’s kind of great about Math Overflow, the thing that will get a lot of people to look at it consistently and thus make it a useful place to ask questions.  But there’s also something worrisome about it.  It shouldn’t be important to be the first one to answer.  A much more rational response to that “right now” feeling would be:  “I don’t need the warm feeling.  An earnest, hard-working grad student will come along and give the same answer I would have given; except the E,HWGS will spend more time and give a more thorough answer with more details included.”  And maybe giving a terse, dashed-off answer as soon as you see the question will actually prevent that E,HWGS from ever writing the ideal answer!

But then, a terse, dashed-off answer is a lot better than no answer.  At the moment I’m very high on this site.  I hope a lot of people — even earnest, hard-working senior faculty — will put a shoulder to it, and see what happens.

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