The idea of crowdsourcing mathematics may come to many as a case of daydreaming. However, as good luck would have it, crowdsourcing mathematics is not just possible but an already-achieved feat
By Firdous Ahmad Mala
Mathematics is both an individual activity and a collaborative one. Who could forget the contributions of Pythagoreans to mathematics? They seem to have been the staunchest believers in the power of numbers. From the music of planets to theology and theorems to doctrines, they are supposed to have utilized numbers in numerous walks of human life. They attempted to interpret almost everything via numbers, including music and friendship. Due to their collaborative efforts, they could see what others could not get a glimpse of. In the words of Richard Tarnas,
“The forms of mathematics, the harmonies of music, the motions of the planets, and the gods of the mysteries were all essentially related for Pythagoreans, and the meaning of that relation was revealed in an education that culminated in the human soul’s assimilation to the world soul, and thence to the divine creative mind of the universe.”
This is not an isolated incident in the history of mathematics. In our times, with the advent of new technologies and new platforms, several new concepts have come to the fore. And one such concept is that of the PolyMath Project or crowdsourcing mathematics knowledge.
The idea of crowdsourcing mathematics may come to many as a case of daydreaming. However, as good luck would have it, crowdsourcing mathematics is not just possible but an already-achieved feat. It goes back to January 2009 when Timothy Gowers, a British mathematician, posted a problem on his blog with a strange but beautiful idea of crowdsourcing its solution online. He solicited the help of everyone to contribute, either entirely or partially, to a possible solution to the problem. This was in itself a highly innovative and massive invitation. This project came to be known as the Polymath Project.
“CrowdMath is an open project that allows all high school and college students to collaborate on a large research project with top-tier research mentors and an exceptional peer group. MIT PRIMES and Art of Problem Solving are working together to create a place for students to experience research mathematics and discover ideas that did not exist before.”
Amazingly, the efforts were successful, and the problem was solved via an immense online collaboration of amateur and professional mathematicians. The solution to the mathematical problem originally posted by Gowers was arrived at not very long after it was originally posted. That is the power of working in unison. Along with the actual problem, Gowers is reported to have posted a question in the blog: Is massively collaborative mathematics possible? The answer, now, of course, is yes.
This ushered in an era of new possibilities, and several other initiatives followed soon after. One such initiative is the CrowdMath project targeted at benefitting high school and college students. As per the Art of Problem Solving website, popularly known as AoPS Online, last accessed on 13th May 2022,
“CrowdMath is an open project that allows all high school and college students to collaborate on a large research project with top-tier research mentors and an exceptional peer group. MIT PRIMES and Art of Problem Solving are working together to create a place for students to experience research mathematics and discover ideas that did not exist before.” As is obvious, it envisions creating a congenial platform for high school and college students to do better in their mathematical endeavors and in helping them marvel and get exposed to the world of mathematical research.
Besides online collaborations, there is another world from which one can learn mathematics. Gone are the days when one was required to travel miles to see a mathematics expert. With the possibility of online and distance learning, one can relish the taste of learning without caring about the distance and the expenses. There exist numerous online platforms where one can learn from and engage with mathematicians from all over the world. Such platforms facilitate the exchange of high-quality mathematical communication and expose the naïve to the best in the business. MathStackExchange and MathOverFlow are two such online places.
Besides these, numerous YouTube channels, such as Krista King, Brian McLogan, MySecretMathTutor, ProfRobBob, PatrickPMT, and 3Blue1Brown, contribute to the spread of much-needed mathematical awareness. These are some of the most awesome mathematics channels where one can learn high-quality mathematics from the ease of one’s home.
Remember that for any society to be recognized in these technological times, the role of mathematics is tough to overestimate. The progress of a community could be measured by the amount of mathematics known and put to use by its individuals and its masses. And doing mathematics is not as expensive as doing other types of research. In the words of George Polya, “Mathematics is the cheapest science. Unlike physics or chemistry, it does not require any expensive equipment. All one needs for mathematics is a pencil and paper.”
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