"Immersion in the life of the world, a willingness to be inhabited by and to speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human, these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva but of the writer." --Jane Hirshfield

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Collective Conscious, or, Mind-Blowing Massive Math

In January, Timothy Gowers, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge and a holder of the Fields Medal, math's highest honor, decided to see if the comment section of his blog could prove a theorem he could not.

In two blog posts he proposed an attack on a stubborn math problem called the Density Hales-Jewett Theorem. He encouraged the thousands of readers of his blog to jump in and start proving. Mathematics is a process of generating vast quantities of ideas and rejecting the majority that don't work; maybe, Gowers reasoned, the participation of so many people would speed the sifting.

Six weeks later, the theorem was proved.

By now we're used to the idea that gigantic aggregates of human brains — especially when allowed to communicate nearly instantaneously via the Internet — can carry out fantastically difficult cognitive tasks, like writing an encyclopedia or mapping a social network. But some problems we still jealously guard as the province of individual beautiful minds: writing a novel, choosing a spouse, creating a new mathematical theorem. The Polymath experiment suggests this prejudice may need to be rethought. In the near future, we might talk not only about the wisdom of crowds but also of their genius.

From the NY Times Year in Ideas.

But bear in mind that this crowd consisted of at least one other Fields medalist in addition to Gowers. I'm not sure I ever had the prejudice that mathematical theorems were as privately arrived at as spousal choices, but this sounds amazing, anyway, the connection of (eventually) all our minds.


jess said...

I have absolutely nothing intelligent nor remotely clever to say about this, but that's really pretty cool.

Zen of Writing said...