Archive for November, 2009

Interpreting a mathematical theorem

November 29, 2009

Teaching a beautiful theorem to a new audience should be like a delicate interpretation of a musical piece, making sure all details are presented and yet flow effortlessly.

Illustration: Lisitsa interpreting Chopin’s Etude Op. 25 N. 6 (click play, then on HQ, and pause until it’s loaded before playing.)


Couple thoughts on MathOverflow

November 26, 2009

MathOverflow was started roughly two months ago.   The administrators there have done a good job with the FAQ, it now does set useful rules.

I quite like the site, but find some features a bit akward, or even having the potential to turn away much needed experts.  I’d thus like to make a few personal remarks, I guess the tone is too general for being a meta thread so I put them up here.

So far MO has about 525 “active users” (folks who got more than one upvote).  Just glancing at the list it seems that 30% are grad students, 50% are junior mathematicians (Postdocs or young faculty) and 20% are senior professors.   Most people one would expect to see (i.e. those already involved in web 2.0 stuff like blogs and wikis)  are there, but not many other researchers seem to have registered. So maybe the site isn’t doing as well as it may first seem.  Here is my list of pros and cons to try and explain that.

Pros are:

– use of real names. Very important to avoid undelicate comments. Usurpation of identity is one issue, perhaps some kind of PGP signing (or email verification by the administrators) would settle this.

– the upvote/downvote system and the badges: allows to know what the community appreciates or not, and to figure out who has done what.

– the tag system, allows to select (resp. skip altogether) things one wishes to read (resp. or not)  e.g. “nt.number-theory” or “soft-question”, altough this should be publicized to those who haven’t registered yet.

Cons are:

– the reputation score:  it’s not helping at all, some folks seem to have asked question to inflate their score (kind of an ego thing) rather than post a genuine question that troubles them.    Better use some broad classes instead, with the precise score only visible for oneself, if one cares at all. For example one could simply use the software’s settings mentionned in the FAQ, I count 10 such classes : less than 15, 15 to 50, 50 to 100, 100 to 200, 200 to 250, 250 to 500, 500 to 2k, 2k to 3k, 3k to 10k and above 10k.

– the navigability: it’s not so easy to locate questions, some kind of wiki mentionning the title and linking to each of them (by arXiv area, say) might be useful.  In 12 months time the site will probably contain more than 20,000 questions at this rate, by then tags and keywords won’t necessarily be enough to search the database.

– some fringe communities could develop (people systematically upvoting one another yet not providing anything substential, just like people refereeing one another yet publishing results of little significance). It might be a problem for new users who don’t know each single 10k+ commenter.

– lack of visibility: how many non web-addicted experts know about the site anyway?

I’m guessing that as long as issues regarding reputation score, skipping particular subjects, and accessing older questions are not made very easily understandable and respectable by experts (especially those who are not so computer friendly)  the site will not see them register.

Two new science & physics sites for asking questions

November 8, 2009

Just learnt about the existence of two new websites which have the potential to become very useful for undergrad and grad students, and even researchers.  They are both based on the same software as the hugely successuful Stackoverflow and MathOverflow sites, they are:

sciencestack and   physics.stackexange

According to their FAQ,  the main rule is:  Avoid asking questions that are subjective, argumentative, or require extended discussion. This is not a discussion board, this is a place for questions that can be answered!”

Of course whether they will become successful websites or not largely relies on their moderators’ ability to enforce that rule, but at least there’s a great potential here!   I hope influencial bloggers like Terry Tao, and Peter Woit (who asked if such site existed),  can mention them: that would boost the prospects of seeing these sites take off  (they’re nearly empty so far, for lack of publicity I think)  and of  good contributors registering.

(Note that some questions borderline between physics and chemistry seem to be asked at both sites, but for the rest it seems the distinction is clear.)

Update 20-dec-09:   sadly it’s been two months now and theses two new sites didn’t quite take off, at least not yet.