Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Success! Polymath1, the first online collaborative project in mathematics

I wish I knew more -- way, way more -- about the fields in which Density Hales-Jewett Theorem figures. Why? Because that's the theorem Cambridge mathematician and Fields medalist Tim Gowers chose for his experiment in massive online collaboration (as noted before). In other words, using his blog (and an associated wiki).

Some five or six weeks (and nearly 1000 comments!) later, Gowers has declared success. Some of the ideas have already made it to a paper. I presume several others will also emerge from this project. Check out the project's timeline to get a sense of how the project progressed.

While the math is at too high a level for me to follow, Gowers's lucid writing makes it easy to get the sense of excitement in the successful completion of the project:

... [L]et me say that for me personally this has been one of the most exciting six weeks of my mathematical life. That is partly because it is always exciting to solve a problem, but a much more important reason is the way this problem was solved, with people chipping in with their thoughts, provoking other people to have other thoughts (sometimes almost accidentally, and sometimes more logically), and ideas gradually emerging as a result. Incidentally, many of these ideas are still to be properly explored ...

The sheer speed at which all this happened contributed to the excitement. In my own case it led to my becoming fairly obsessed with the project and working on it to the exclusion of almost everything else (apart, obviously, from things I absolutely had to do).

It would have been great if only I could follow the details of the project's progress -- the false starts, the blind alleys, the strategy changes, ... It would have been absolutely wonderful to have been a part of this process.

But I'll settle for having had an opportunity to witness history being made.