Friday, October 16, 2009

The first Polymath project-- A thriller!

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? [Bold emphasis added]

That's from Tim Gowers and Michael Nielsen, writing in Nature about the first Polymath project that Gowers started on his blog.