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Math Overflow
October 17, 2009 12:28 PM   Subscribe

Math Overflow is the first attempt to use the Stack Exchange platform, already popular with programmers, as a scientific research tool. Founded this month by a group of young mathematicians, including Scott Morrison and Ben Webster of the Secret Blogging Seminar, the site is already wrestling with hundreds of questions, ranging from the technical ("When is a map given by a word surjective?") to the historical ("Most interesting mathematics mistake?")
posted by escabeche (40 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nice, I was wishing there was a site like this a while back.
posted by delmoi at 12:35 PM on October 17, 2009


It's an interesting concept, though I'm betting that over time, it'll become a forum for answering homework questions like "What is the derivative of cosx+x^2+9 with respect to x?".
posted by movicont at 12:36 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


The moderators seem to be determined to keep this from happening; do you think the downvoting system in Stack Exchange will take care of this or will it require a lot of moderator Whack-a-Mole?
posted by escabeche at 12:39 PM on October 17, 2009


We've been upgraded to the beta 3 version of the Stack Exchange software, which should fix the login problem. With that, Math Overflow is going into beta + ε.

*rolls eyes*
posted by delmoi at 12:40 PM on October 17, 2009


I'm all for using epsilon in everyday speech.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 1:25 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's going to need a better equation editor.
posted by jeffamaphone at 1:31 PM on October 17, 2009


I took a look at this earlier. I'm a fan of the community and format of Stack Overflow, but I agree that if this is going to be interesting to mathematicians, they're going to need a smart math markup language.
posted by onalark at 1:40 PM on October 17, 2009


Actually, why? I'm a mathematician, it's interesting to me, and I don't find myself wishing I could type in LaTeX or something. It's like writing e-mail to people about math, and e-mail doesn't have a smart math markup language.
posted by escabeche at 1:47 PM on October 17, 2009


it'll become a forum for answering homework questions like "What is the derivative of cosx+x^2+9 with respect to x?"

For questions like that, Wolfram Alpha already does it.
posted by mhum at 1:48 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Most of the answers to the question of "what is the most interesting mathematics mistake" I wouldn't call mistakes, but rather failed attempts at proofs. This is normal in mathematical research - an incorrect hypothesis or approach leads to hours of wasted time and, if we're lucky, a new insight. To me a "mistake" is a smaller sort of thing, and it's an interesting mistake if it leads to major consequences. For example, I'd nominate the programming error in the early history of the Hubble Telescope whereby the insertion of a plus instead of minus sign cost NASA a lot of expensive confusion.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:50 PM on October 17, 2009


One of the comments on that website goes:

"the projection of an open set is open, and the Borel sets in the plane are the least family containing the open sets, closed under countable unions and countable intersections"

Perhaps there should be a corollary to Clarke's Law: any sufficiently advanced mathematical statement is indistinguishable from sexual innuendo.
posted by storybored at 2:06 PM on October 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


Also the greatest mathematical error committed was by the Beatles. In an egregious oversight they mistook the cardinality of a simple set: They postulated that card{days of week} is Eight when in fact it is Seven. Oblivious, they proceeded to derive numerous preposterous conclusions including:

Happiness ε {warm guns}

and

John Lennon ε {walruses}
posted by storybored at 2:28 PM on October 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


Storybored himself just perpetrated two errors, or perhaps the same error twice, when he claimed that the Beatles claimed (a) that happiness belongs to the set whose sole element is warm guns (presumably the set thereof) and (b) that John Lennon belongs to the set whose sole element is walruses (presumably the set thereof). In fact what they claimed is that happiness belongs to the set of warm guns, and that John Lennon belongs to the set of walruses, claims properly notated as "Happiness ∈ warm guns" and "John Lennon ∈ walruses".
posted by kenko at 2:54 PM on October 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


Also, ε ≠ ∈.
posted by kenko at 2:55 PM on October 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


Speaking of mathematical notation, are there any good real time math editors that are free, easy to use, and don't have a custom format? The only thing I've found is Open Office's math notation editor which supposedly uses it's own markup syntax, which isn't even documented anywhere.

I'd like to learn Latex or something in an easy, interactive way.
posted by delmoi at 3:13 PM on October 17, 2009


I really like this. I look forward to the biology version.
posted by grouse at 3:21 PM on October 17, 2009


Ooh where's the Postmodern Overflow?
posted by xmutex at 3:31 PM on October 17, 2009


I'd like to learn Latex or something in an easy, interactive way.

It only takes an hour or two to learn the gist of it. Just get a template off the internet and fiddle around with it, google when you run into trouble. It really is worth the bother, Open Office sucks.

Alternatively you can try Lyx (WYSIWYG) which is supposedly easier to use, although I haven't used it.
posted by moorooka at 3:33 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's really irritating that all of these Overflow sites have independent user profiles that don't cross over from site to site.
posted by Caviar at 3:42 PM on October 17, 2009


X = P1. G = Z/2Z, acting trivially. Z = [X/G].

Act now! You WILL NOT find a better price for this stack! Only $5! (that's 5 factorial dollars). Willing to exchange for well-behaved stacks of equal or lesser dimension. Call (123) HIL-BERT!
posted by water bear at 3:48 PM on October 17, 2009


A good way to get started with TeX would probably be Lyx plus the detexify website, which tries to guess which math symbol you drew with your mouse, and gives you usable TeX / Latex code for that symbol.
posted by idiopath at 3:51 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's really irritating that all of these Overflow sites have independent user profiles that don't cross over from site to site.

Why? They are run by different parties. The Stack Exchange is a platform for sale to be used to create your own site. They do not constitute a network.
posted by xmutex at 3:53 PM on October 17, 2009


In fact what they claimed is that happiness belongs to the set of warm guns, and that John Lennon belongs to the set of walruses

Lennon's claim is in fact to be not a walrus but the walrus. If there is an error, it is in Lennon's implication that there are no other walruses, not in storybored's characterization of Lennon's assertion.

Why? They are run by different parties.

The core sites run by Atwood & co suffer the same independent-profile weakness, though, despite being basically under one roof, administratively, and having a fair amount of direct and explicit userbase overlap. But that's, yeah, kind of a different discussion than the Math Overflow thing.
posted by cortex at 4:21 PM on October 17, 2009


It's really irritating that all of these Overflow sites have independent user profiles that don't cross over from site to site.

You can use OpenID, so the signup process is pretty quick, it's practically like having one signup.

A good way to get started with TeX would probably be Lyx plus the detexify website, which tries to guess which math symbol you drew with your mouse, and gives you usable TeX / Latex code for that symbol.

Woah, that detexify thing is pretty sweet. When I said math editor I just meant something that would show me what I was typing in real time, rather then some kind of MS-Word style editor. I'll take a look at Lyx.
posted by delmoi at 5:38 PM on October 17, 2009


If you are comfortable using a regular editor rather than a word processor, another option is texmacs, which is a fork of the storied GNU emacs with the capability to render TeX in real time as you edit the document. The screenshots are pretty impressive, but it may be abandonware.
posted by idiopath at 5:45 PM on October 17, 2009


escabeche: I agree that typing in LaTeX would be nice but isn't the first issue they need to solve. (If anything, it's possible that having LaTeX ability would slow things down.)

movicont: I ran into a homework problem on mathoverflow earlier today (or was it yesterday?) and flagged it. It was deleted. The moderators seem to be pretty aggressive so far in stamping out homework questions. I hope this is sustainable.

A general comment: I've often wished I could just write a question on, say, a blackboard in my department's common room and get an answer from somebody. Often I have questions that I know somebody will be able to answer, but I don't know who that will be, and I don't have the time to knock on dozens of doors asking everybody. This is sort of like that.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:05 PM on October 17, 2009


escabeche: I agree that typing in LaTeX would be nice but isn't the first issue they need to solve. (If anything, it's possible that having LaTeX ability would slow things down.)

There are definitely website plug ins out there, such as this one, and I doubt they would slow things down too much. Integrating it probably wouldn't be that hard, StackOverflow has pretty good code detection/syntax highlighting.
posted by delmoi at 6:11 PM on October 17, 2009


Oh and Wordpress has built-in support
posted by delmoi at 6:13 PM on October 17, 2009


This is an awesome site.

Oh and Wordpress has built-in support

ohemmgee, this might be the final straw that gets me from blogger to wordpress.
posted by DU at 7:07 PM on October 17, 2009


Well, lots of people will (or used to) just type in TEX without requiring any particular support from the software. I can talk about how $x_i \geq x_j$ and you all know what I mean.
posted by hattifattener at 8:51 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


(man, the whole "oh noes I saw some numbers and now I am blind / lolgeeks / real people never use math amirite" thing in that wordpress+latex comment thread is pretty depressing.)
posted by hattifattener at 8:56 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's an interesting concept, though I'm betting that over time, it'll become a forum for answering homework questions like "What is the derivative of cosx+x^2+9 with respect to x?".

It's already been done.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:49 PM on October 17, 2009


It's already been done.

Hah, speaking of homework, I just noticed this tiny ad on the Wolfram alpha page you linked too. It links to this.

Anyway when I was in highschool I had a calculator that could answer questions like that pretty easily.
posted by delmoi at 10:55 PM on October 17, 2009


It's a pity that Stack Exchange is getting traction -- I really hated the StackOverflow format when it launched, and time hasn't made it any better. It's massively, massively over-engineered and tries in that inimitable geek way to engineer human nature.

The SE site has a quote saying There must be some magic in StackExchange because the level of user engagement has just been phenomenal. which is classic post hoc ergo propter hoc. StackOverflow is indeed very popular, but I genuinely think that was despite the software rather than because of it.

Most importantly, it already had a lot going for it when it launched -- most crucially, it wasn't expert sexchange, but on top of that there is a genuine demand for the knowledge and an ever-more-pressing need to lever that out of the becalmed waters of mailing lists. On top of this, it got the startup bump of experts willing to try again to devote their time, it had a ready-made audience from Coding Horror and Joel Spolsky, and it had a professional white background.

Because of all these things, people put up with the pretend answers-are-a-wiki-but-still-refer-to-one-another thing where anything can be edited into a blizzard of confusion, the badly-tacked-on commenting system and the endless karma barriers. Ultimately, I'm not sure if the wizards are going to continue getting enough out of it to keep the answers coming, which is always the downfall of a mailing list.

Meanwhile, thanks to good stewardship, a $5 sanity barrier and an alert community, AskMe manages to answer many more questions on many more topics with nothing more than a flat thread and a best answer tick.

All the best to the Maths site, though. I don't know enough about the maths world to know if there's that same level of pent-up demand that programming had, but if there is hopefully they do will get past the software to make a success of it.
posted by fightorflight at 4:39 PM on October 18, 2009


Hmm, According to this blog post LaTex support is coming.

It's a pity that Stack Exchange is getting traction -- I really hated the StackOverflow format when it launched, and time hasn't made it any better. It's massively, massively over-engineered and tries in that inimitable geek way to engineer human nature.

I just think it's kind of ugly. I mean, it's kind of a cool design for a single site, but having lots of sites that look like that would get old, quick.
posted by delmoi at 9:12 PM on October 18, 2009


having lots of sites that look like that woulddid get old, quick.

Fixed that for you.
posted by Caviar at 10:17 AM on October 19, 2009


Why? They are run by different parties. The Stack Exchange is a platform for sale to be used to create your own site. They do not constitute a network.

And I'm tired of cookie-cutter server-side software that doesn't do this. Sure, it's a technical hurdle and I can't point to an example that does this properly, but wouldn't it be nice if there was one? Why do we take it for granted that every new site has to have its own independent registration that can't talk to the others?
posted by Caviar at 10:21 AM on October 19, 2009


Why do we take it for granted that every new site has to have its own independent registration that can't talk to the others?

Dude, it works with openID. What more do you want? You just enter the OpenID URL, and pick a username. That's it. In fact, you don't even need to pick a username.
posted by delmoi at 9:31 PM on October 19, 2009



It's a pity that Stack Exchange is getting traction -- I really hated the StackOverflow format when it launched, and time hasn't made it any better. It's massively, massively over-engineered and tries in that inimitable geek way to engineer human nature.


Oh, I so agree. I am a sucky programmer, so I'm always googling for things I can't figure out. Stack Overflow is invariably at the top the results. But the question pages are always so confusing to look at. There's all these bells and whistles that I think they are using to substitute for good moderation.

This Math Overflow would be right in my wheelhouse (I love answering and thinking about math questions), and would be useful for me, but I when I tried to log in and participate, there were all these extra things around (reputation points, badges, etc) that I felt made the site more 3rd graderish and less a community. I guess I was hoping for an AskMefi about math.
posted by bluefly at 4:38 AM on October 20, 2009


I think all the extra crap on stackoverflow kind of makes sense, because targeting geeks and it's supposed to be fun. It would probably work well for a site like stackoverflow and their sister sites. But for more general topics it's probably way over the top.
posted by delmoi at 2:00 AM on October 21, 2009


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