Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Polymath Project

Gowers and Nielsen offer in the current issue of Nature a report on the online collaboration in mathematics known as the Polymath Project. It is hard to know what to make of it all without delving into the details and trying to understand if there is anything special about this problem which lends itself to collaboration. But two passages jump out for the philosopher:
This theorem was already known to be true, but for mathematicians, proofs are more than guarantees of truth: they are valued for their explanatory power, and a new proof of a theorem can provide crucial insights.
The working record of the Polymath Project is a remarkable resource for students of mathematics and for historians and philosophers of science. For the first time one can see on full display a complete account of how a serious mathematical result was discovered. It shows vividly how ideas grow, change, improve and are discarded, and how advances in understanding may come not in a single giant leap, but through the aggregation and refinement of many smaller insights. It shows the persistence required to solve a difficult problem, often in the face of considerable uncertainty, and how even the best mathematicians can make basic mistakes and pursue many failed ideas. There are ups, downs and real tension as the participants close in on a solution. Who would have guessed that the working record of a mathematical project would read like a thriller?
At over 150 000 words, these records should keep some philosopher busy for a while!

1 comment:

徐若瑄Vivian said...
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