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John Baez has been invited to write a short opinion piece for the Notices of the AMS to report about the maths blogging phenomenon to the wider mathematical community, and in the spirit of that phenomenon, has opened up a blog post to solicit input for that piece, over at the n-Category café.  Given that the readers here are, by definition, familiar with mathematical blogging, I thought that some of you might like to visit that thread to share your own thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of this mode of mathematical communication.

The mini-polymath project to find solutions to Problem 6 of the 2009 IMO is still ongoing, but I thought that, while the memories of the experience are still fresh, it would be a good time to open a parallel thread to collect the impressions that participants and observers had of how the project was conducted, how successful it was, and how it (or future projects) could be made to run more smoothly.

Just to get the ball rolling, here are some impressions I got as a (rather passive) moderator:

  1. There is no shortage of potential interest in polymath projects. I was impressed by how the project could round up a dozen interested and qualified participants in a matter of hours; this is one particular strength of the polymath paradigm.  Of course, it helped that this particular project was elementary, and was guaranteed to have an elementary (and relatively short) solution.  Nevertheless, the availability of volunteers does bode well for future projects of this type.
  2. A wiki needs to be set up as soon as possible. The wiki for polymath1 was an enormously valuable resource, once it was set up.  I had naively thought that the mini-polymath1 project would be short enough that a wiki was not necessary, but now I see that it would have come in handy for organising and storing the arguments, strategies, insights, and ideas that arose through the linear blog thread format, but which was difficult to summarise in that format.  (I have belatedly set a wiki for this project up here.)  For the next polymath project (I have none planned yet, but can imagine that one would eventually arise), I will try to ensure a wiki is available early on.
  3. There is an increasing temptation to work offline as the project develops. In the rules of the polymath projects to date, the idea is for participants to avoid working “offline” for too long, instead reporting all partial progress and thoughts on the blog and/or the wiki as it occurs.  This ideal seems to be adhered to well in the first phases of the project, when the “easy” but essential observations are being made, and the various “low-hanging fruits” are harvested, but at some point it seems that one needs to do more non-trivial amounts of computation and thought, which is still much easier to do offline than online.  It is possible that future technological advances (e.g. the concurrent editing capabilities of platforms such as Google Wave) may change this, though; also a culture and etiquette of collaborative thinking might also evolve over time, much as how mathematical research has already adapted to happily absorb new modes of communication, such as email.  In the meantime, though, I think one has accommodate both online and offline modes of thinking to make a polymath project as successful as possible, avoiding degeneration into a mass of low-quality observations on one hand, and a fracturing into isolated research efforts on the other.
  4. Without leadership or organisation, the big picture can be obscured by chaos. As I was distracted by other tasks (for instance, flying from Bremen back to Los Angeles), and had already known of a solution to the problem, I adopted a laissez faire attitude to task of moderating the project.  This worked to some extent, and there was certainly no shortage of ideas being tossed back and forth, arguments being checked and repaired, etc., but I think that with more active moderation, one could have had a bit more focus on longer-term strategy and vision than there was.  Perhaps in future projects one could be more explicit in the rules about encouraging this sort of perspective (for instance, in encouraging periodic summaries of the situation either on the blog or on the wiki).
  5. Polymath projects tend to generate multiple solutions to a problem, rather than a single solution. A single researcher will tend to focus on only one idea at a time, and is thus generally led to just a single solution (if that idea ends up being successful); but a polymath project is more capable of pursuing several independent lines of attack simultaneously, and so often when the breakthrough comes, one gets multiple solutions as a result.  This makes it harder to do direct comparison of success between polymath projects and individual efforts; from the (limited) data points available, I tentatively hypothesise that polymath projects tend to be slower, but obtain broader and deeper results, than what a dedicated individual effort would accomplish.
  6. Polymath progress is both very fast and very slow. I’ve noticed something paradoxical about these projects.  On the one hand, progress can be very fast in the sense that ideas get tossed out there at a rapid rate; also, with all the proofreaders, errors in arguments get picked up much quicker than when only one mathematician is involved.  On the other hand, it can take a while for an idea or insight obtained by one participant to be fully absorbed by the others, and sometimes the key observation can be drowned out by a large number of less important observations.  The process seems somewhat analogous to that of evolution and natural selection in biology; consider for instance how the meme of “try using induction”, which was the ultimately successful approach, had to first fight among competing memes such as “try using contradiction”, “try counting arguments”, “try topological arguments on the cube”, etc., before gaining widespread acceptance.  In contrast, an individual might through luck (or experience) hit upon the right approach (in this case, induction) very early on and end up with a solution far quicker than a polymath effort; conversely, he or she may select the wrong approach and end up wasting far more time than a polymath would.
  7. The wordpress blog format is adequate, but far from ideal. Technical problems (most notably, the spam filter, the inability to preview or edit comments [except by myself], and the (temporary) lack of nesting and automatic comment numbering) made things more frustrating and clunky than they should be.  Adding the wiki helps some of the problems, but definitely not all, especially since there is no integration between the blog and the wiki.  But the LaTeX support included in the WordPress blog is valuable, even if it does act up sometimes. Hopefully future technologies will provide better platforms for this sort of thing.  (As a temporary fix, one might set up some dedicated blog (or other forum) for polymath projects with customised code, rather than relying on hosts.)

Seven videotaped lectures from 1964 by Richard Feynman given in Cornell, on “The Character of Physical Law“,  have recently been put online (by Microsoft Research, through the purchase of these lectures from the Feynman estate by Bill Gates, as described in this interview with Gates), with a number of multimedia enhancements (external links, subtitles, etc.).  These lectures, intended for a general audience, broadly cover the same type of material that is in his famous lectures on physics.

I have just finished the first lecture, describing the history and impact of the law of gravitation as a model example of a physical law; I had of course known of Feynman’s reputation as an outstandingly clear, passionate, and entertaining lecturer, but it is quite something else to see that lecturing style directly.  The lectures are each about an hour long, but I recommend setting aside the time to view at least one of them, both for the substance of the lecture and for the presentation.  His introduction to the first lecture is surprisingly poetic:

The artists of the Renaissance said that man’s main concern should be for man.

And yet, there are some other things of interest in this world: even the artist appreciates sunsets, and ocean waves, and the march of the stars across the heavens.

And there is some reason, then, to talk of other things sometimes.

As we look into these things, we get an aesthetic pleasure directly on observation, but there’s also a rhythm and pattern between the phenomena of nature, which isn’t apparent to the eye, but only to the eye of analysis.

And it’s these rhythms and patterns that we call physical laws.

What I want to talk about in this series of lectures is the general characteristics of these physical laws.  …

The talk then shifts to the very concrete and specific topic of gravitation, though, as can be seen in this portion of the video:

Coincidentally, I covered some of the material in Feynman’s first lecture in my own talk on the cosmic distance ladder, though I was approaching the topic from a rather different angle, and with a less elegant presentation.

[Via the New York Times.  Note that some browsers may need a Silverlight extension in order to view the videos. Youtube versions of three of the seven lectures are available here.  Another, much more recent, series of videotaped lectures of Feynman is available here.]

[Update, July 15: Of particular interest to mathematicians is his second lecture “The relation of mathematics and physics”.  He draws several important contrasts between the reasoning of physics and the axiomatic reasoning of formal, settled mathematics, of the type found in textbooks; but it is quite striking to me that the reasoning of unsettled mathematics – recent fields in which the precise axioms and theoretical framework has not yet been fully formalised and standardised – matches Feynman’s description of physical reasoning in many ways. I suspect that Feynman’s impressions of mathematics as performed by mathematicians in 1964 may differ a little from the way mathematics is performed today.]

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I (in conjunction with Tim Gowers and many others) have been working collaboratively on a mathematical project.  To do this, we have been jury-rigging together a wide variety of online tools for this, including at least two blogs, a wiki, some online spreadsheets, and good old-fashioned email, together with offline tools such as Maple, LaTeX, C, and other programming languages and packages.  (To a lesser extent, I also rely this sort of mish-mash of semi-compatible online and offline software packages in my more normal mathematical collaborations, though polymath1 has been particularly chaotic in this regard.)

While this has been working reasonably well so far, the mix of all the various tools has been somewhat clunky, to put it charitably, and it would be good to have a more integrated online framework to do all of these things seamlessly; currently there seem to be software that achieves various subsets of what one would need for this, but not all.  (This point has also recently been made at the Secret Blogging Seminar.)

Yesterday, though, Google Australia unveiled a new collaborative software platform called “Google Wave” which incorporates many of these features already, and looks flexible enough to incorporate them all eventually.  (Full disclosure: my brother is one of the software engineers for this project.)  It’s nowhere near ready for release yet – it’s still in the development phase – but with the right type of support for things like LaTeX, this could be an extremely useful platform for mathematical collaboration (including the more traditional type of collaboration with just a handful of authors).

There is a demo for the product below.  It’s 80 minutes long, and aimed more at software developers than at end users, but I found it quite interesting, and worth watching through to the end:

[Update, May 30: Apparently a LaTeX renderer is already being developed as an API extension to Google Wave; here is a very preliminary screenshot.  Also, a shorter explanation of what Google Wave is and does can be found here. ]

[Update, Jun 7: Another review can be found here.]

This weekend I was in Washington, D.C., for the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.   Among the various events at this meeting was an address to the Academy by President Obama this morning on several major science and education policy initiatives, including some already announced in the economic stimulus package and draft federal budget, and some carried over from the previous administration.   (I myself missed the address, though, as I had to return back to LA to teach.)  Among the initiatives stated were the creation of an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), modeled on DARPA (and recommended by the NAS); a significant increase in funding to the NSF and related agencies (which was committed to by the Bush administration, but not yet implemented; this is distinct from the one-time funding from the stimulus package discussed in this previous post), leading in particular to a tripling in the number of NSF graduate research fellowships; and a “race to the top” fund administered by the Department of Education to provide incentives for states to improve their quality of maths and science education, among other goals.  Some of these initiatives may not survive the budgetary process, of course, but it does seem that there is both symbolic and substantive support for science and education at the federal level.

Here are the video, audio, and transcript of the talk.

[Update, Apr 28: Another event at the meeting is the announcement of the new membership of the Academy for 2009.  In mathematics, the new members include Alice Chang, Percy Deift, John Morgan, and Gilbert Strang; congratulations to all four, of course.]

Now that the project to upgrade my old multiple choice applet to a more modern and collaborative format is underway (see this server-side demo and this javascript/wiki demo, as well as the discussion here), I thought it would be a good time to collect my own personal opinions and thoughts regarding how multiple choice quizzes are currently used in teaching mathematics, and on the potential ways they could be used in the future.  The short version of my opinions is that multiple choice quizzes have significant limitations when used in the traditional classroom setting, but have a lot of interesting and underexplored potential when used as a self-assessment tool.

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The level and quality of discourse in this U.S. presidential campaign has not been particularly high, especially in recent weeks.  So I found former Gen. Powell’s recent analysis of the current state of affairs, as part of his widely publicised endorsement of Sen. Obama, to be a welcome and refreshing improvement in this regard:

It’s a shame that much of the rhetoric and commentary surrounding this campaign – from all sides – was not more like this.  [In keeping with this, I would like to remind commenters to keep the discussion constructive, polite, and on-topic.]

[Update, Oct 22: Unfortunately, some of the more recent comments have not been as constructive, polite, and on-topic as I would have hoped.  I am therefore closing this post to further comments, though anyone who wishes to discuss these issues on their own blog is welcome to leave a pingback to this post here.]

Prodded by several comments, I have finally decided to write up some my thoughts on time management here.  I actually have been drafting something about this subject for a while, but I soon realised that my own experience with time management is still very much a work in progress (you should see my backlog of papers that need writing up) and I don’t yet have a coherent or definitive philosophy on this topic (other than my advice on writing papers, for instance my page on rapid prototyping). Also, I can only talk about my own personal experiences, which probably do not generalise to all personality types or work situations, though perhaps readers may wish to contribute their own thoughts, experiences, or suggestions in the comments here. [I should also add that I don’t always follow my own advice on these matters, often to my own regret.]

I can maybe make some unorganised comments, though. Firstly, I am very lucky to have some excellent collaborators who put a lot of effort into our joint papers; many of the papers appearing recently on this blog, for instance, were to a large extent handled by co-authors. Generally, I find that papers written in collaboration take longer than singly-authored papers, but the net effort expended per author is significantly less (and the quality of writing higher). Also, I find that I can work on many joint papers in parallel (since the ball is often in another co-author’s court, or is pending some other development), but only on one single-authored paper at a time.

[For reasons having to do with the academic calendar, many more of these papers get finished during the summer than any other time of year, but many of these projects have actually been gestating for quite some time. (There should be a joint paper appearing shortly which we have been working on for about three or four years, for instance; and I have been thinking about the global regularity problem for wave maps problem on and off (mostly off) since about 2000.) So a paper being released every week does not actually correspond to a week being the time needed to conceive and then write up a paper; there is in fact quite a long pipeline of development which mostly happens out of public view.]

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I usually try to keep political issues out of this blog, and I certainly try to avoid asking friends and readers of this blog for favours, but there is an urgent situation developing in mathematics (and related disciplines) in my home country of Australia, and I need to ask all of you for assistance to prevent an impending disaster.

When I was an undergraduate at Flinders University in South Australia from 1989 to 1992, the level of mathematics education in Australia was comparable to that of world-class institutions overseas. Even in a small and little-known university such as Flinders, I received a first-rate honours undergraduate education in mathematics, computer science, and physics which I continue to use daily in my career. (Examples of topics I learned as an undergraduate include wavelets; information theory; Lie algebras; differential geometry; nonlinear PDE; quantum mechanics; statistical mechanics; and harmonic analysis. I rely on my knowledge of all of these topics today, for instance many of them are are helpful for me in teaching my current class on the Poincaré conjecture.) In addition, several of the faculty (including the chair and my undergraduate advisor, Garth Gaudry) had the time to spare an hour a week with me to discuss mathematics, as they were not overloaded with large teaching loads and other duties. I honestly think that I would not be where I am today without the high-quality undergraduate education that I received (in particular, I would definitely have floundered in graduate school at Princeton, if I were admitted at all).

The situation for mathematics education in Australia began however to deteriorate in later years, due to a combination of factors including government neglect (the federal government is the most significant source of funding for most universities in Australia) and the low priority of basic education in mathematics and sciences among university administrators. In particular, at Flinders University, the School of Mathematics suffered severe attrition due to lack of support and was eventually folded into the School of Informatics and Engineering. In fact the number of mathematicians on the faculty at Flinders has dwindled down to just three (in my day it was close to 20).

The decline of mathematics departments across the country, particularly in a time in which mathematics skills are desperately needed in the workforce, has been documented thoroughly in the 2006 national strategic review of the mathematical sciences. In response to that report, the federal government in 2007 announced an increase in the funding allocation to universities based on their student enrollments in key majors including mathematics and the sciences. The newly elected federal government is also likely to continue and extend this support in its upcoming budget in May of this year.

Unfortunately, it appears that at many universities, the additional funding was diverted away from the schools that it was intended to support, for the administrator’s own priorities. (See also the letter by the international authors of the above mentioned review, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, Brenda Dietrich, and Iain Johnstone, condemning this diversion.) As a consequence, many mathematics departments are in fact in worse shape than before.

There is a particular crisis unfolding at the University of Southern Queensland. On March 17, the university announced a rationalisation and restructuring proposal that would cut the number of mathematics faculty from 14 to 6, eliminate the majors in mathematics, chemistry, physics, and statistics, and phase out all non-service courses (for instance, any of the types of courses I mentioned above at Flinders would be lost). Similar cuts were also proposed in statistics, computer science, and physics, although other schools retained their funding and some even obtained increases. This is despite the increases in funding from the federal government for mathematics and statistics students (enrollments in these areas at USQ has held steady so far, though of course with the proposed cuts this is unlikely to last). Already as a consequence of these proposals, initiatives of the department such as an education program for high school mathematics teachers have had to be scrapped. Somewhat ironically, the Dean of Sciences at USQ, Janet Verbyla, who has been heavily involved in proposing the cuts, had also presided over similar reductions in the school of mathematics at Flinders.

If the proposed cuts at USQ go ahead, it is likely that other small universities in Australia will be tempted to similarly ignore concerns about mathematics and science education and perform similar cuts, even while receiving government support for these disciplines. (The University of New England, which currently shares some statistics courses at USQ, would for instance be particularly vulnerable.) So the crisis here is not purely localised to USQ, but could be very damaging for mathematics and sciences in Australia as a whole.

The consultation period for these cuts ends very soon, on April 14, and the vice-chancellor of USQ, Bill Lovegrove, plans to announce the specific cuts on April 18 at an unspecified future date. While there has been some media attention in Australia given to this issue, it has not yet had much effect in reversing the decisions of these administrators. Because of this, I am reluctantly turning to my friends and readers of this blog to ask for your urgent assistance in saving the school of mathematics and computing at USQ. In collaboration with several good friends and colleagues in Australia, I have begun a web page on this blog,

that is documenting the situation and outlining ways to help, including an online petition

that you can sign to show support, and people to contact in the university administration and in the Australian government to express your concerns, or to express support for mathematics and its role in the sciences. Please also inform others, especially those in Australia and who may have influence in media, political, or administrative circles, of the current crisis. There is still time, especially in view of the expected increase in support for mathematics and sciences in the upcoming federal budget, to reverse the situation before the damage becomes permanent, and to show that the political support for mathematics education is not so negligible as to be easily ignored.

Thank you all in advance for any help you can give – and I promise that I will keep the remainder of my blog on topic and focus primarily on mathematics. :-)

[Update, April 9: See my editorial at the Funneled Web, “Mathematics in Today’s world“, for a more detailed discussion of the USQ crisis, and also the broader context of the importance of higher mathematics education, and the pivotal role universities have to play in providing it.]

[Update, April 12: The Toowoomba Chronicle has a two-page article by Merryl Miller focusing on the crisis, and in particular focusing on its impact on a 10-year old child prodigy, Adam Walsh, currently taking maths classes at USQ. (Reprinted with permission.)]

[Update, April 14: The petition has been formally sent to the USQ administration. Apparently, the previously planned announcement of the cuts on April
18 has been delayed to some unspecified later date, but no further details are currently available.]

[Update, April 17: In response to the concerns of constituents, Hon. Mike Horan MP, the state member for Toowoomba South, spoke in the Queensland parliament urging the University of Southern Queensland to reconsider its cutbacks to mathematics and statistics. (The full and official transcript of the day’s session in Parliament can be found here; the speech above is on page 1198.)]

[Update, April 29: The USQ administration released a revised draft proposal on April 22, but the details are largely unchanged (e.g. 11 staff cuts to the department of mathematics and computing instead of 12, and a “review” of the maths major and its courses rather than automatic elimination). The revised plan has already attracted criticism from the National Tertiary Education Union, and we are continuing to organise further opposition to the proposals. (For instance, László Lovász, President of the International Mathematical Union, wrote a letter of support on April 25.]

[Update, May 1.  A second revised draft proposal has been released, which uses some new (but possibly non-permanent) sources of funding to add some specialised positions to partially offset the cuts (e.g. there will be 2-3 such positions in mathematics and statistics, although the 11 staff cuts are still in effect).  The USQ administration has apparently also agreed to recheck the student load and financial data that is being used to underlie these proposals, as there appears to be some irregularities with this data in previous rationales.]

The newly elected Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, apologises to the “Stolen Generation” of indigenous Australians for past government policies.