Is massively collaborative mathematics scalable? May 25, 2009Posted by Ben Webster in blog triumphalism, crazy ideas, fun problems.
I’ve been watching, though not particularly intently, Tim Gowers’s attempt massively collaborative mathematics. I’m not sure if I’ve looked hard enough to judge, but it certainly looks as though it were quite successful. This of course, answers Tim’s original question “is massively collaborative mathematics possible?” positively, but I still have to wonder if it’s sustainable in the long term. Of course, it never seems smart to bet against the possibilities of the Internet combining disperate contributions into valuable knowledge. Certainly, I would say people have tended to underestimate the possibilities of real advances coming from the technology of wikis and blogs. At the same time, it seems hard to imagine that people will really have the energy and time, not to mention mental organization, to follow several such projects at all closely. One of Tim’s take away lessons from the project seemed to be that it shrank in number of participants faster than he expected. And this was in a collaboration prominently featuring two Fields medalists and promoted on what is probably the world’s most prestigious math blog! It seems more likely that as the number of such projects expands the average number of participants will shrink until most are functionally equivalent of the collaborations we are used to today, just with more efficient coauthor location. By which I mean, the important advance will not be the number of people involved, but rather the identity of them.
Not that the value of efficient coauthor location should be minimized! The broader array of people we can stay in contact with due to the Internet is a huge boon to mathematics. It’s just that I suspect any concern over how we will deal with the allocating credit in a 20 person collaboration is a bit premature, at least outside of exceptional cases.
On the other hand, I’m kind of excited about the possibility of proving myself wrong, but haven’t been able to come up with any good projects. Does anyone wanna do that massively collaboratively?