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What Polymath Needs is Wasted Time July 26, 2009

Posted by Phi. Isett in Essays, Uncategorized.

The following is an extensive reply to a post on Terence Tao’s blog.

My point of view is based in part on my experience as a moderator of a webforum of up to a dozen active members which devoted a few years to the collaborative production of a complex storyline with several, deeply interwoven subplots.  Time will tell how well large collaborations can produce mathematics –they are certainly an amazing tool for story-writing, and some comparisons can be made upon abstraction so the experience may be relevant.  The Google Groups format had tremendous advantages and shortcomings, but an inability to harness people’s free time ultimately lead to our story’s stagnation.


At the moment, polymath seems to function in many ways analogously to various forms of entertainment and “time-wasting” (reading blogs and webcomics, participating in forums, watching movies, watching YouTube, etc.) – indeed, this “wasted time” is in some sense exactly the incredible resource which polymath must compete to harness, although within a more restricted audience and for the noble purpose of serving mathematics.  I am sort of joking, but this is only my interpretation of Prof. Tao’s original request that the participation in the latest polymath problem solving experiment be casual.

Now, much work has already been done to procrastinate as efficiently as possible– we read a select few blogs/webcomics/twitters and have efficient means of getting to them (feeds, bookmarks); we look at Rotten Tomatoes to decide which movies to watch.  On YouTube, we often look at the “N Views” and the “x/5.0 (y votes)“ user-rating figure to decide which videos are best worth our wasted time (and many videos on YouTube are “replies” to others, which are linked).  YouTube, for instance, has had to developed mechanisms to help ensure good posts do not get squashed, which is a problem polymath also faces.  Regardless of their shortcomings and their obviously differing objectives from those of Polymath, these “procrastination” activities provide good examples of how to effectively organize a mass of information which is spread among many people so as to save time, and that is the problem I want to address here (as opposed to the closely related problem of optimal technology and formatting).  In other words, I will not propose any particular technologies, but rather make a list of things which I believe a technology has to be capable of doing in order to harness massive collaboration and spare time in a satisfactory way – a task which is crucial to maximizing the long term impact of polymath.