Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Polymath Redux

Speaking of crowd-sourcing (as yesterday's post did)... I've reported on Tim Gowers' collaborative Polymath Project in the past, but it's been awhile. Here though, a critical review/update on the Polymath concept from a "bystander":

I can't help but think the author is overly critical in seeming to view the Polymath effort as not revolutionary enough, and not including enough of the mathematics community. I view it (like I view Khan Academy) as being young and still a work-in-progress. I'm not certain it's even meant to be "revolutionary," so much as simply productive. And the author seems to  want to spread the wealth of that productivity to the broader math community; I just don't know how practical that will be given the Polymath focus on highly complex problems. The author actually summarizes well though the basic potential of the Project:
"Mathematics has the greatest potential for 'doing research online'. There’s no physical entity needed and our primary standard of scientific communication is the written word. There’s nothing in mathematical research that cannot be digitalized. We will never face the problem that somebody on the other side on the net would have to actually look at our specimen, our antibody staining, our test subjects. The web works perfectly for us.
Hence, mathematicians could be at the forefront of experimenting with new research activities that use the connectivity the web can offer in new and imaginative ways."
In the end though the author pleads, "...please, for a change, let’s not ask Tim Gowers to do everything for us!"

Anyway, an interesting discussion...


Peter said...

Thanks for mentioning my post.

I was aware that I might sound overly critical, but I've simply run into too many people who think that Polymath is some sort of big revolution.

You wrote that you see it as young work-in-progress that is not trying to be revolutionary, but productive.

If one of the two was the case, I wouldn't have written that much (e.g. MathOverflow is still productive but has really lost its edge as a community, becoming very stable and self-contained)

However, Polymath is neither seeing progress (developing the Polymath "method" if you will) nor has it been very productive (two papers in three years, four failed projects, no recent activity).

This isn't a big deal, actually. Just like anything in the web, such experiments are bound to come and go (e.g. We just need to keep experimenting.

"Shecky Riemann" said...

Thanks for commenting Peter... I'll just note that I don't think 3 yrs. is enough time yet to really judge much (I think Amazon lost money hand-over-fist for something like 7 yrs. running before turning any profit, and now is the most successful online retailer in the world.) I thought Bezos was crazy, when he was actually patient and prescient... just perhaps Gowers is too!?