Polymath, Blogging, and HE

I really don’t know what it will take to show higher education how anti-intellectual their dismissal of Web 2.0 has been. But one might think this speech from Fields Medalist Terence Tao might have an effect.

Very recently, software tools have become available to allow easier collaboration by large numbers of authors from across the world.  Unlike the sciences, pure mathematics in academia has never really had the large laboratories in which armies of graduate students, postdocs, and senior researchers work on a single goal; but the technology is just becoming available for such large-scale projects to be possible.

This year, for instance, by ad hoc usage of existing tools such as blogs and wikis, the first “polymath” projects were launched – massively collaborative mathematical research projects, completely open for any interested mathematician to drop in, make some observations on the problem at hand, and discuss them with the other participants.

The very first such project solved a significant problem in combinatorics after almost six weeks of effort, with almost a thousand small but non-trivial contributions from dozens of participants.  It was a novel way to do mathematics, but also a novel way to locate the collaborators with the right expertise and interest to solve the problem, perhaps serving as a model to begin collaborations through online networking rather than physical networking.

But then again, probably not.


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