Sunday, February 08, 2009

Making sausage

No, not that kind.

By now, many of you have probably heard of the massively collaborative math experiment being conducted by Timothy Gowers on his blog (with offshoots on Terry Tao's blog). The idea is to mount a serious attack on a conjecture in combinatorics called the density Hales-Jewett conjecture (go to Gowers' site for more details).

Michael Nielsen points out something that I had been thinking about while perusing the initial thread: this is an EXCELLENT way to show students how research gets done. I remember a while back that Sean Carroll from Cosmic Variance had done a post explaining how one of his papers got written, but the post-facto description lacked the immediacy and the messiness of a usual research process, and probably (just even through faulty memories) even missed out on some the paths not taken in the course of the research.

Seeing research done "live" as it were, by professional high-caliber mathematicians, is as exciting as watching live professional sports, and is even better in the sense that you see the the false starts, the high level strategizing and plans of attack, the multitude of possible ideas that get formed, and even the growth of more stable, promising lines of attack on related problems.

One of the things I'm pondering right now is the best way to show students how research is done, and this is a great example to illustrate the messy, convoluted, and yet highly sophisticated ways in which experts ply their trade.
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