Tongue twister? No, mind bender. Jordan Ellenberg wrote up Massively Collaborative Mathematics for the NY Times Sunday Magazine's 9th Annual Year in Ideas--and what an idea this one was. Cambridge University mathematician Timothy Gowers and Toronto writer and physicist Michael Nielsen launched the Polymath Project earlier this year, throwing out an intractable math proof to the digital masses. They wrote up their experiment for Nature under the same title the Times used.
On 27 January 2009, one of us — Gowers — used his blog to announce an unusual experiment. The Polymath Project had a conventional scientific goal: to attack an unsolved problem in mathematics. But it also had the more ambitious goal of doing mathematical research in a new way. Inspired by open-source enterprises such as Linux and Wikipedia, it used blogs and a wiki to mediate a fully open collaboration. Anyone in the world could follow along and, if they wished, make a contribution. The blogs and wiki functioned as a collective short-term working memory, a conversational commons for the rapid-fire exchange and improvement of ideas.
The collaboration achieved far more than Gowers expected, and showcases what we think will be a powerful force in scientific discovery — the collaboration of many minds through the Internet.
I could go on quoting their article for paragraphs but it's better if you click to see in detail how things unfolded transparently and across the minds of a whole lot of people, in contrast, the authors point out, to how most science happens:
The Polymath Project differed from traditional large-team collaborations in other parts of science and industry. In such collaborations, work is usually divided up in a static, hierarchical way. In the Polymath Project, everything was out in the open, so anybody could potentially contribute to any aspect. This allowed ideas to be explored from many different perspectives and allowed unanticipated connections to be made.
Much more networky. Ellenberg also turns the clever phrase on all of this -- the Polymath Project suggests that the "wisdom of crowds" might better be called "the genius of crowds."
This is important stuff. Collaboration in science goes against the grain of competitive intelligence of the I'm-smarter-than-you variety. Yet most problems facing us require putting our heads together. Perhaps the MacArthur Foundation should consider expanding its genius awards to collaborations? What if fellowships were awarded to groups rather than individuals? What if we awarded a global collaboration Nobel not for the content of the work but for the process?
(And now for a long, tangentially related nit: It would be impossible for any journalist to write about this project without using a variation on the phrase "a beautiful mind," derived from the best-seller by my college roomie, Sylvia Nasar, about mathematician and Nobel laureate John Nash. (If you didn't read the book, you should, but you probably saw the movie.) Ellenberg's variation: "But some problems we still jealously guard as the province of individual beautiful minds." Let me be irked for Sylvia because, of course, she is much more mature than I am. Every time I see the words strung together without attribution I grrrr, including last Sunday when The NY Times Book Review section used them in a headline without mentioning her at all, even though the book being reviewed was about Gregory Perelman, the subject of former-NY Times-reporter-oh-the-irony-Sylvia's fascinating "Manifold Destiny," her New Yorker piece about the elusive Russian mathematician who turned down the Fields Medal, which, wrapping back around to the subject of this post, Gowers of the Polymath Project holds.)