Friday, March 8, 2013

MathOverflow: Make your problems everyone's problems

By Carol Clark

“New technologies are changing the way we do math research,” says Emory mathematician David Zureick-Brown.

Zureick-Brown gave a talk at the recent ScienceOnline conference about MathOverflow, a web site that he co-founded while he was graduate student at Berkeley, along with colleagues Anton Geraschenko and Scott Morrison.

MathOverflow provides a dynamic forum to more efficiently solve problems, by allowing users to post questions and quickly receive answers and advice from a large community of research mathematicians.

“Mathematicians tend to know a lot more math besides what they publish,” says Zureick-Brown, explaining that the idea behind the web site is to uncover this buried knowledge when it’s needed.

“When I’m working on a problem, if I’m stuck on something, I dig and dig and dig, and find a question that captures what I’m confused about,” he says. Previously, he would just take that question to colleagues and to conferences, but now he can post it on MathOverflow to quickly reach a much wider community.

Founded in 2009, Math Overflow has built-up 10,000 active users who have posed more than 35,000 questions, which have received more than 60,000 answers. The average time it takes to get a correct answer is under six hours. MathOverflow answers are now frequently cited in research papers.

The web site’s community ranges from gifted high school students to Fields Medalists. Most active users are either full-time math researchers, or in a university training to become one.

The web site is highly interactive, and allows users to vote and gain reputation. “The idea is that the good content should just naturally shift to the top of the site,” Zureick-Brown says. As users build reputation, they slowly gain rights and can eventually edit posts and answers, making the community self-moderating.

Most of the questions on MathOverflow involve highly esoteric mathematical problems and concepts. But the site also has a share of posts that math lovers of all levels can appreciate, such as: “I’m interested in magic tricks whose explanations require deep mathematics. The trick should be one that would actually appeal to a layman.”

And a user named Jason asked if anyone knew of any good math videos. That question drew more than 70 responses with links to a range of videos, from a short film revealing the beauty of Moebius Transformations to a group of singing mathematicians (see above) performing “Finite Simple Group.”

Top image of Hadwiger-Nelson problem by David Eppstein, via Wikipedia Mathematics Portal.

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