(written collaboratively by Anton Geraschenko and Scott Morrison, in google wave)
Math Overflow (MO) is a brand new mathematics questions and answers site. You should go give it a try! Several of the regular readers of this blog are already there. It’s much more fun if you actually ask a question, and the only way to get the full experience.
Math Overflow has lots of features that we think makes it really awesome:
- Questions and answers get voted up and down, making it easy to find the gems in a large pool of content.
- There is a reputation system. As your questions and answers get voted up, your reputation goes up. The more reputation you get, the more the system allows you to do. Above 10,000 reputation, there is little difference between between users and moderators.
- It’s sorta wiki. Once you reach 2000 reputation, you can edit other peoples’ posts to correct typos and make the presentation clearer. Questions and answers can also be marked “community wiki”, in which case all established users (100+ reputation) can edit them. (By the way, when you post material on the site, it is under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license.
Now MO isn’t intended to fill the same niche as math blogging. In fact, we’re not really sure what niche(s) it’s going to fill; it’s an experiment! It will be much more focused on “smaller” and “more technical” questions, especially ones that have definite answers. This is of course both good and bad. On the bad side, some really interesting questions will be less suitable for MO, simply because it’s harder to develop answers incrementally, conversationally, or collaboratively. In particular the “polymath” style of problem solving probably isn’t going to happen on MO to the extent that it happens on a math blog. On the other hand, MO has already proved itself surprisingly effective, especially if you really want an answer to a particular question. Hopefully after a while google will start effectively indexing MO, and we’ll even see incoming searches to previous questions.
At present the focus is largely in algebraic geometry, although the past week has also seen lots of growth in TQFTs and homological algebra. This is in part just because of the current user population, and it will hopefully broaden as people other than our friends start using it! Even if it remains concentrated in certain areas it may still be successful. If you’d like to influence the development, and encourage good coverage of your field, go ask and answer some questions, and invite your colleagues! One worry, of course, is that it will be overwhelmed by calculus students. Before you worry too much about this, go and browse through the current questions, observe the one or two inappropriate questions and how we’ve dealt with them. For now it really doesn’t seem to be a problem.
We’re hoping that this comment thread (and perhaps new ones as necessary) will become the central place for “meta” discussion of Math Overflow. In particular, if you have comments or criticisms about the site, or even the very idea, please tell us here. Complaints about bugs, the community, or the overbearing manner of the moderators are all okay too. We’re even happy to hear that you don’t like the color scheme. Some aspects of the site are beyond our control, but we’d like to do whatever we can to make Math Overflow a great place to do math.
Some known issues (and preemptive responses):
- “MO is not a discussion site”. There was some talk in the comments here about whether MO is amenable to discussions. The Q&A format encourages people to ask particular questions which can be given definite answers. Some discussion will take place in the comments, in particular request for clarification or pointing out errors. To keep things on-topic, comments are limited to 600 characters. Also keep in mind that answers will often change order as later ones get voted up. All of this means that the framework forces any discussion to remain fairly focused. If you want to discuss something more broadly, well, come back the Secret Blogging Seminar. Remember that MO is not meant to fill the same niche a blog does.
- There’s currently no LaTeX support. Obviously, this is the top-priority feature. This definitely won’t be implemented until the Stack Exchange software is out of beta, but it will probably be implemented shortly thereafter. In the meantime, do your best. You’re welcome to type raw LaTeX, use basic html (e.g. Ω and x<sub>1</sub>), or whatever you would normally write in email.
- A few users have reported problems with their Google-issued OpenID. Occasionally, for reasons unknown, Google will issue an OpenID different from the one it issued before, so the site will not recognize you. If you have this problem, just create a new user and email Anton (firstname.lastname@example.org). He’ll merge the two users and add the other OpenID as an alternate, so your account will respond to both. If it keeps being a problem, the easiest thing is to use a non-Google OpenID (like myopenid.com).
Finally, some statistics and a little background: Math Overflow is only 2 weeks old, it already has about 50 active users, 150 questions, and over 300 answers. It runs the same software (Stack Exchange) as the very successful stackoverflow.com for programmers. The hosting costs have been generously funded by Ravi Vakil at Stanford.