The Polymath Project allows unprecedented numbers of people to work on the same problem, hopefully solving conundrums more quickly.
Mathematicians are not known as a social bunch, but a new “WikiMaths” project is allowing anyone to join in their cutting-edge research. A study into the effectiveness of the world's first virtual mathematics project will be released this week.
It all started in 2009, when Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers wrote about the possibility of an open online group allowing unprecedented numbers of people to work on the same problem, hopefully solving conundrums much more quickly. He suggested the “Hales-Jewett theorem” as a good first target.
Analogous to a complicated game of noughts and crosses played on a 4x4 cube in five dimensions, the theorem shows how many squares you would need to block to make it impossible to complete any straight lines. On a 3x3 grid, you can do this by blocking three squares; in five dimensions, things are a bit more complicated.
This theorem had already been proven, but the solution was long and complicated and no one had found a much-needed basic proof.
Contributions poured in — a staggering 1,228 significant comments across 14 blog posts with 39 people providing meaningful contributions. Within six weeks the answer had been found. It was published under the collective pseudonym “DHJ Polymath”.
But was the process truly collaborative? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, think so. Much of the work was done by professional mathematicians, but a number of smaller, vital contributions came from those without serious credentials.
The 39 contributors to the Hales-Jewett theorem solution ranged from the world's top mathematicians to secondary school maths teachers. Several seminal ideas came from inexperienced mathematicians. Which all means that the exercise could redefine who is considered a mathematician — and offer new insight into unsolved problems.
The researchers are presenting their results in Vancouver next week, while the “Polymath Project”, as it now known, continues to work on seven different problems with more than 5,000 comments from 275 unique contributors. Why not join in at polymathprojects.org? — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011