30 January 2009

Open Source Mathematics

Maths is a famously lonely discipline - I should know, having spent three years of my life grappling with a single equation (the equation won). Mathematicians meet, and collaborate, it's true; but what would a truly open source approach to the process of solving mathematical problems look like? Maybe something like this:

Suppose one had a forum (in the non-technical sense, but quite possibly in the technical sense as well) for the online discussion of a particular problem. The idea would be that anybody who had anything whatsoever to say about the problem could chip in. And the ethos of the forum — in whatever form it took — would be that comments would mostly be kept short. In other words, what you would not tend to do, at least if you wanted to keep within the spirit of things, is spend a month thinking hard about the problem and then come back and write ten pages about it. Rather, you would contribute ideas even if they were undeveloped and/or likely to be wrong.

Do read the rest of the post if you can: (a) because it's thought provoking and (b) it's written by the Trinity man and Fields medallist Timothy Gowers.

7 comments:

bob_sutor said...

Management of the comments coming from the fringe will be really important so they don't suck all the air out of the serious work. So participant management might not be completely open. As a mathematician, I've always thought of the discipline as open source, and it frames the way I think about open source in general.

Bob Sutor

glyn moody said...

Yes, the devil's certainly in the details.

It must say something about how long ago it was that I was doing my Maths PhD that there was no free software around to map it on to conceptually....

Larry ( IEOR Tools) said...

I truly believe this is already starting if not already existing. There are numerous groups, forums, mailiing lists where one could collaborate on open source projects in the mathematics realm. I for one started a blog that dealves into engineering and operations research tools which in essence is the practical application of math. Maybe the current projects don't meet your definition of Open Source Mathematics but it is very close and leaning in that direction.

glyn moody said...

@Larry: well, I don't think it's too important worry about definitions. It's good if people are exploring this kind of stuff in different ways.

David Gerard said...

Dealing with cranks will be the killer. Wikipedia's "no original research" rule originated as the only way to deal with physics cranks, for example.

OTOH, that's no reason not to try it, any more than the certainty of cranks would have been a reason not to start Wikipedia.

glyn moody said...

The other big advantage with maths is that you can *prove* the cranks are wrong....

happyseaurchin said...

a light approach to problem solving
if that is what you are suggesting
is a fine idea

the trick is to elucidate the right elements
out of the morass of possibilities

what you are suggesting
will probably have the tendency to diversify and fraction attention

interesting suggestion...