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Wiki to Help Solve Millennium Problems? 232

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the np-complete dept.
MattWhitworth writes "A new wiki has been set up over at QEDen to try to gather a community to solve the Millennium Problems. The problems are seven as yet unsolved mathematical problems that continue to vex researchers today. What do you think of this effort? Will gathering a community of people help solve problems such as P=NP, or do you think it requires a lot more than a semi-qualified community to approach the problem?"
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Wiki to Help Solve Millennium Problems?

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  • Please. . . (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jd142 (129673) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:12PM (#15135652) Homepage
    3/4 of the people will argue about their misunderstanding of the problems involved, the other won't even know what the problems are but think they do. The very few people who actually do understand the problems and the underlying issues will eventually stop trying to explain what the real issue is.
    • Re:Please. . . (Score:5, Insightful)

      by kfg (145172) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:19PM (#15135679)
      Will gathering a community of people help solve problems such as P=NP, or do you think it requires a lot more than a semi-qualified community to approach the problem?"

      GIGO.

      The quantity of GI does not effect the reality of GO.

      The very few people who actually do understand the problems and the underlying issues will eventually stop trying to explain what the real issue is.

      One very quickly learns the pointlessness of trying to explain to the Unskilled and Unaware of It that it would take about two years of education for them to even understand that they don't understand the issue.

      And it only annoys the pig.

      KFG
      • Re:Please. . . (Score:3, Insightful)

        by sangdrax (132295)
        This parody [blogspot.com] basically sums it up. Eventually, the experts just stop bothering to check the proofs [weizmann.ac.il].
      • Re:Please. . . (Score:3, Interesting)

        by g2devi (898503)
        You're making a critical assumption that they let anyone post or edit. Just because Mediawiki allows anonymous users to edit sections does not mean that the QEDen website will. They could make the wiki read only for anyone who doesn't sign in. They may allow anyone to sign in, but cut them off if they start adding a lot of garbage instead of contributing things of value. If they wanted to allow anonymous contribution (in case there is a Ramanujan in the mix that is hesitant about logging in as you occassion
    • 3/4 of the people will argue about their misunderstanding of the problems involved, the other won't even know what the problems are but think they do. The very few people who actually do understand the problems and the underlying issues will eventually stop trying to explain what the real issue is.

      "Any scientist who cannot explain to an eight-year-old what he is doing is a charlatan"
      --Kurt Vonnegut in Cat's Cradle

      • Re:Please. . . (Score:5, Insightful)

        by dsci (658278) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:36PM (#15135751) Homepage
        "Any scientist who cannot explain to an eight-year-old what he is doing is a charlatan"

        --Kurt Vonnegut in Cat's Cradle


        Would you not say there is quite a difference from explaining what you are doing to an 8 year old child and giving sufficient information to expect that child to contribute to the work?

        For example, I study reaction dynamics and intramolecular energy flow during 'fast' reactions. It is pretty easy for me to explain to children that I study chemical reactions - how things are changed from one thing to another. I could even do some demo's and talk about them in some detail.

        But that's a far cry from expecting those children from being able to help me solve Navier-Stokes equations, apply classical thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics to arrive at quantitative models of deflagration explosions.
        • by flyingsquid (813711) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @01:50PM (#15136003)
          But that's a far cry from expecting those children from being able to help me solve Navier-Stokes equations, apply classical thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics to arrive at quantitative models of deflagration explosions.

          Aha! A charlatan!

      • I can explain most of these problems to an eight year old in at least one level of detail or another. The problem is that it is foolish to then think that eight year old could turn around and provide the insight necessary into solving these problems.

        As another person put it, it would take two years of education for most people just to realize that they don't know enough about the subject.
      • Re:Please. . . (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ZombieWomble (893157)
        "Any scientist who cannot explain to an eight-year-old what he is doing is a charlatan" --Kurt Vonnegut in Cat's Cradle

        Have you ever seen any of the threads which pop up on some forums now and again attempting to convince people that 0.9 recurring is equal to 1? It's true, but it's unintuitive - and consequently, people tend to persistently reject the idea, even with varying degrees of proof (from the 1/3 = 0.3 recurring argument, to the demonstration that it follows directly as a result of constructing t

        • Have you ever seen any of the threads which pop up on some forums ...

          I learnt the futility of trying to explain simple mathematics. In a peripherally related subject, I was sucked into an interminable thread on whether "The Millennium" began in 2000 or 2001. The "2000" camp basically just followed the odometer argument; the moment the round number appears on the calendar. A significant event (as significant as any numerical symmmetry), but not a "millennium". And closer to home, the inevitable 800-post th

        • Your statement that people will often reject things that contradict what we expect is completely untrue, the idea that people will argue with you for the hell of it is completely unfounded. It's obvious even to me that sunspots are making you say this, after all, I studied pythagoras. You could try and explain to me why you believe what you do, but I wouldn't be able to understand, which means it's wrong. Go back to IT class and leave the real science to the brave /.ers where it bleongs.

          *cough*
      • Re:Please. . . (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Scientist != Mathematician. Vonnegut would certainly never have suggested that they are equal.

        A scientist's work needs to touch on reality at some point. If a scientist doesn't understand why he's doing what he's doing clearly enough to tell an eight year old, then he's lost touch with the purpose of research. Even pure scientific research is explicable. "I'm trying to find out how quickly certain bits of the stuff we're made of stick to each other." At least, that's Vonnegut's contention there. An eight ye
        • Vonnegut would certainly never have suggested that they are equal.

          He's not dead, you know.

        • Scientists may use mathematics, but science and mathematics are very different fields.

          I wouldn't say there's such a fine distinction between science and mathematics: surely it would be hard to really explain to an eight-year old the particulars of string theory or quantum mechanics, even though they are "tangible", "real-world".

          But it's not true that theoretical scientists and mathematicians can say nothing to an eight-year old, it's just that they can say nothing terribly exciting. Pretty much all of math
      • >"Any scientist who cannot explain to an eight-year-old what he is doing is a charlatan"

        nowadays that restriction has been relaxed, and the official requirement for grant proposals in the UK is that it should be able to be understood by "an interested 14 year old".
      • ""Any scientist who cannot explain to an eight-year-old what he is doing is a charlatan" --Kurt Vonnegut in Cat's Cradle

        I agree!

        "What can I tell you about baking a cake if you have never heard of flour, butter or milk?". -- Eienstien (paraphrase).

        I agree! -- with both quotes?

        The wiki could be cream or crap, it all depends on how it is set up, how moderators are selected and who can post (requires email, sign in, ect). The whole idea of a wiki is that it automatically points to other parts of the
    • If Slashdot was a wiki even if I couldn't contribute to the math, at least I could correct the spelling of "Millennium".
    • by kjs3 (601225)
      You forgot about the usual quota of nutters who will post endlessly that they've already solved the problems, but the mathematicians don't understand their genius, want to suppress their genius, or both. Aliens may or may not be involved. Woe be to the first person competent in the field who mistakenly rebuts said genius...as you will likely get to be the nutters singular obsessive object of hatred, held above all others. Your every utterance in the forum will demand the most vigourous (mostly ad homen)
  • by hunterx11 (778171) <hunterx11 AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:15PM (#15135667) Homepage Journal
    Kofi Annan and Jeffrey Sachs set up a wiki to solve the Millennium Development Goals which mind-bogglingly manages to be even less successful.
    • ...and BBSpot [bbspot.com] will set up a Wiki to solve the Y2K problem. 85% of this Wiki will consist of suggestions from people who don't know what the problem was, and think it sill exists. The other 15% will consist of people asking Brian Briggs [bbspot.com] how to contact Ensenam Ayele [bbspot.com].

      • Actually, the Y2K problem *does* still exist, and is waiting to go off in zillions of little detonations over the next 50 years or so. Amazingly enough, although the *obvious* solution was to widen the year field from 2 digits to 4, most estimates are that from 60% to 75% of all the Y2K fixes employed "windowing" instead.

        In other words, there's millions of lines of code that have crap like:

        if yr > 30 then year = yr + 1900 else year = yr + 2000;

        Which of course is going to crap out at the e
    • Re: Meanwhile... (Score:3, Insightful)

      by caffeination (947825)
      Pure flamebait, but modded up because it fits so well into the defeatist UN-bashing groupthink.

      This analogy is quite flawed. Whereas discussion of theoretical problems can lead to the solution itself, discussion of practical issues can only be a small part of their solution, and is followed by the actual solving, which is a seperate act.

      Add in the fact that he's implying that the wiki is being touted as the solution, and the total incomparability of development goals vs mathematics problems ("solve"?), and

      • I didn't misspell "millennium." I leave that to the editors and humorless people.

        Honestly, though, both of these issues involve hard problems for which there are no easy solutions. And both of them involve problems that hardly anyone is qualified to address, yet a whole lot of people have abstract ideas about them that aren't useful because the details are what matter. It isn't as though there are hordes of advanced mathematicians and development experts who are unaware of each other and need the internet

  • well, (Score:3, Interesting)

    by joe 155 (937621) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:15PM (#15135669) Journal
    or do you think it requires a lot more than a semi-qualified community to approach the problem?

    (sorry about the bad spelling)
    well I'm completely unqualified in every sense for these things, but being a political scientist I should be able to have a stab at the last question... Concordat's jury theorum suggests that with more people your chance of getting a right answer increases, say if everyone has about 60% chance of getting it right for example then with a few hundered people that chance should have increased to over 80%... which would lead me to believe yes it will work, still, i tend to think that the more people you have the less productive you are capable of being as people will disagree, and if the two most experienced people disagree then it could polarise the views of the less experienced people and split the project... so basically, it could go either way...
    • Re:well, (Score:3, Insightful)

      by dsci (658278)
      Does Concordat's jury theorem apply to highly specialized fields with rigorous rules like advanced mathematics?

      I would think, and this is just a guess, that the qualified pool of people working on those problems is already nearly maxed out. Adding a bunch of folks that don't even 'speak the language,' as another poster mentioned, probably won't increase the odds of a solution very well.
      • Amateurs have always positively contributes to the sciences.

        If you look through history you will find that the established scientists were often preventing the release of new ideas. Whether this be from their younger colleagues or from amateurs.

        That said, the amateurs likely to be able to contribute to a solution on these problems are already aware of them and Wiki isn't likely to change that significantly. Many subjects are best done with a very small group of people, not a thousand experts, never mind ten
  • In related news... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MosesJones (55544) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:20PM (#15135682) Homepage
    Wiki to be created to solve Grand Unified Theory of Everything, this will take over because physicists, chemists, mathematicians have failed to do it, so the idea is to lob it out there. First step will be to resolve the problems between gravity and quantum mechanics.

    Lets put it this way, if there was a Wiki on solving complex DNA evolution problems, 50%+ of the posts would be from wackos talking about ID and Creationism.

    I hate to break it to people, but Maths and Physics make computing look like a liberal arts degree.
    • I hate to break it to people, but Maths and Physics make computing look like a liberal arts degree.

      [Insert rant about the diminishing frontiers between maths and computer science here]
      • [Insert rant about the diminishing frontiers between maths and computer science here]

        Let's see... The entire computer department was gutted out this Spring Semester due to low enrollment. The only class I was able to pick up was statistics math. An obvious disconnect here.

        Oh, yeah. If you want to learn numerical computation, that class is offered only in the math department.
        • by Anonymous Coward
          This from a man who got a degree with San Jose City College and only an AA in General Education. Is that one of those degrees they give people who do not have majors? Ooh, look you have certs. Can I inform you of something? You are not a computer scientist, you are an IT drone. Enjoy your experience fixing PCs and helping the clueless out. If you really wanted to program or be a "computer scientist" you should have gone to a real four-year college and gotten a BS in, I don't know, Computer Science ma
          • ..if they just dropped the math. Right? Isn't that what people said when "Brief History of Time" came out. I'd try to prove that you have to agree with me, but I lack the logical calculus to communicate my idea. So I'll just tell you how dumb everyone else is. (Hopefully Gene Ray doesn't have a process patent on that.)
          • Let's set the record straight. I never went to high school. When I tried to get an adult HS diploma, they told me it would take five years to get a diploma and that I should go to the community college. (In California, if you are at least 18 years old and can benefit from the instruction, the community college has to take you in.) It took me four years to get my associate degree in general education in 1994. Not bad considering that I never went to high school.

            I then transferred to the local university w
    • Mathematics is (historically) the ultimate liberal art.

      (taken from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_arts [wikipedia.org])
      In the history of education, the seven liberal arts comprised two groups of studies: the trivium and the quadrivium. Studies in the trivium involved grammar, dialectic (logic), and rhetoric; and studies in the quadrivium involved arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. These liberal arts made up the core curriculum of the medieval universities. The term liberal in liberal arts is from t
    • I hate to break it to people, but Maths and Physics make computing look like a liberal arts degree.

      Especially the maths we are talking about here. Modern pure mathematical research is carried out by a tiny little global group of people devoting their whole lives to a single problem. Even worse, the different mathematical disciplines are far more detached than, say, physics is.

      I have an MSc in Quantum Field Theory and am working on a degree in computational neuroscience. Five years of world class educ

  • by creimer (824291) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:21PM (#15135688) Homepage
    That's a simple one. The missing mass is vaporware from all the features that Microsoft was promising for Windows Vista and all the promises the Duke Nukem Forever will be released. Once Windows Vista is fully featured and Duke Nukem Forever is released, the equations should work correctly. The odds of that happening is... like a spaceship being swallowed by a large dog in space. :)
  • Monkeys (Score:3, Interesting)

    by wellwatch (588301) <wellwatch@gmail.com> on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:22PM (#15135690)
    If you put a million monkeys banging on a million type writers you will eventually end up with the works of Shakespeare. If you put a million intelligent people trying to solve unsolved math problems they will have a solution if one exists. ...eventually
    • Wasn't all the monkeys hired to produce system code instead?
    • This won't really work. See, 'a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters' is a metaphor for random text generation. There's never been any real monkeys in this parable. If they were real monkeys, they wouldn't by far behave randomly enough. They wouldn't type like "asjfd jk o 94 To be or not to be?" It'd be more like dldskfdslfldlddddddddddddddddddllddldldldldldldld l dldldldldldldld" Eventually, you'd end up with a million bored monkeys and a million broken typewriters -- but not a single work of Wi
      • Personally, I'd always hypothesised that the monkeys would split into factions and then use the typewriters to beat one another to death. So you'd have something more like 500000 injured monkeys, a million broken typewriters, and a subpoena from Greenpeace.

        Since I'm such a pro-active, solution-oriented problem-solver, I've engineered the following solution: instead of relying on the monkeys producing quality literature, film their progress, and rake in millions from it as a docufilm like the ones that fat g

  • Motivation? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by siwelwerd (869956) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:22PM (#15135691)
    If you have something significant towards a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis, surely you're going to publish that in a peer-reviewed journal, not throw it online in a wiki. I'm not sure what the incentive is for mathematicians to use this.
  • Noble endavor (Score:2, Insightful)

    by nandu_prahlad (706343)
    I think ideas like this should definitely be encouraged. Personally, I don't think a band of semi-qualified people will be able to accomplish much. These problems require a very deep knowledge of mathematics to understand and appreciate them, let alone solve them.
    However by involving everyone, including the layman in these fascinating problems will help increase appreciation for the beauty of mathematics amongst the general public and that to me is equal in worth to actually solving these problems.
  • by sydneyfong (410107) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:22PM (#15135693) Homepage Journal
    Keep in mind that there already is a kind of wiki-like "collaboration" within the academic circles. The only difference being that the circle is relatively small compared to a "wiki".

    But then, more people working on it doesn't necessarily improve things. For one, you will expect a very bad noise to signal ratio, where there would be a bunch of smart ass ideas that have already been disproved decades ago, or ideas which are so obviously wrong that no academic would even think of writing a paper for.

    Basically the whole thing is based on the assumption that "monkeys banging on typewriters will eventually produce all the works of shakespear". It works in theory, but remember that it takes either an infinite number of monkeys, or infinite time -- whereas you could find a group of talented people to do the same job more effectively.

    Expect a dozen claims of "TSP solved in P time!" from this site within a month, and nothing more afterwards.
  • by Ckwop (707653) * <Simon.Johnson@gmail.com> on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:22PM (#15135695) Homepage

    Will gathering a community of people help solve problems such as P=NP, or do you think it requires a lot more than a semi-qualified community to approach the problem?

    Proofs are not really found by committee. This Wiki might be a good way to share research and in that sense it may aid the effort but above and beyond that it's not going to contribute much.

    It will take a unique insight and a particularly sharp mind to get to the bottom of these problems.

    Simon

  • solid approach (Score:5, Insightful)

    by xiao_haozi (668360) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:23PM (#15135707) Homepage Journal
    I think this is a great approach. Its effectiveness is questionable, but that is the story with everything else. Seems as though it should at least help shed some light on different approaches to some of the problems and maybe help those that are truly the 'professionals' that have been cranking on these problems to see some insight and fresh ideas. Kinda just rolls with the oss philosophy of having as many eyes and brains as possible looking at code to find the bugs and to provide creativity...so why not math. Maybe this will also open up more opportunity for those with gifts in programming to find methods to help design new methods for computational approaches to these problems. Will it cure cancer, stop hunger, prevent aids/hiv...no. But basic research is basic research, so why not.
    • Re:solid approach (Score:5, Informative)

      by illuminatedwax (537131) <stdrange@alumni. ... 14o.edu minus pi> on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:52PM (#15135805) Journal
      Because social constructs already exist for current research. People don't sit in ivory towers thinking about this stuff by themselves - they go to conferences, write papers, send emails, and yes, even make wikis.

      This is going to become an instructional site to teach people (hopefully correctly) what is going on in these fields, nothing more.
      • Because social constructs already exist for current research. People don't sit in ivory towers thinking about this stuff by themselves - they go to conferences, write papers, send emails, and yes, even make wikis.

        And yet it took a bath to discover the Archimedes principle. Sometimes inspiration comes from strange sources...

        Eureka! [pitara.com]
    • I think this is a great approach. Its effectiveness is questionable, but that is the story with everything else. Seems as though it should at least help shed some light on different approaches to some of the problems and maybe help those that are truly the 'professionals' that have been cranking on these problems to see some insight and fresh ideas. Kinda just rolls with the oss philosophy of having as many eyes and brains as possible looking at code to find the bugs

      This is an absolutely ridiculous approach
  • If a group of people had a higher collective intelligence than any one individual, this might be the case. Unfortunately, IQ is not cumulative.

    GJC
    • I tried to post this hours ago but the maintenance got in my way.

      I think it's a pretty well established fact that the collective IQ of a group of people is inversely proportional to the number of people in the group.

      I mean, look at slashdot!?
  • by ZombieWomble (893157) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:30PM (#15135725)
    The professor I worked under for my MSci project last year was collaberating on a number of theoretical problems with people from many other univerisites, and rather than unwieldly mailing lists and such to keep in contact, they set up a bit of wiki-like software, so they could touch up errors in derviations, suggest new approaches and so forth, while still maintaining a cohesive form of the body of work. It's apparently very effective, and has made their collaberation much more efficient.

    The important difference there was that this project was only open to those actually actively involved in working on this problem. A public wiki will likely be bogged down by people who don't truly understand the problem or the approaches used to solve them - instead of everyone being able to contribute a little (as is possible in Wikipedia, which effectively just requires a transcription of information) the vast majority of people won't have anything to offer at all. And of course, those that are actively involved in working on these projects and want to share their work are in all likihood already doing so - with other people in the same field.

    This project will likely attract those who do not have the particlar interest, time or background to work in a focused fashion on the problem, and consequently I'd be surprised if anything really unique or surprising came out of the project.

    • by Raindance (680694) <(johnsonmx) (at) (gmail.com)> on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:52PM (#15135808) Homepage Journal
      I'd be surprised if anything really unique or surprising came out of the project.

      I'd agree, with two caveats: this project might attract some math prodigy that isn't working on these problems (Ramanujan, anyone?). Also, this project will help a lot of people learn how to think about the most abstract parts of mathematics.

      The possibility of either result would justify this project in my eyes.
      • I'd agree, with two caveats: this project might attract some math prodigy that isn't working on these problems (Ramanujan, anyone?)

        The millennium problems were selected because they are both well known and have resisted attempts at solution. I remember being introduced to the P = NP problem in college and you would be hard pressed to find a computer scientist anywhere who has not at least heard of the problem. The problems in the other fields are probably equally famous in their respective disciplines. I
  • The only helpful thing this will do is allow the people who need to be working on to access the currently existing literature on the subject. But it probably won't be that great a benefit - most grad students (and bright undergrads) these days will have a professor latch onto them and be able to point them in the right direction.

    The other way this website will be useful will be to let everyone see the latest developments in the field. Solving any of the Millenium Problems generally requires getting very ver
    • I haven't read the article and I've only scanned the Slashdot blurb, but I don't think their aim is to find any new talent. It's not a reality show. Their aim is to create something like a huge superhuman brain: a large number of braincells working together will be able to solve problems a single brain cell would never be capable of solving; similarly, a large number of people working together [on a wiki] should be capable of solving problems a single human could not even dream of solving. Of course you'd s
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:35PM (#15135747)
    I'm a professional mathematician and I find the idea interesting.

    Real researchers are familiar with cranks on newsgroups (James S Harris on sci.math for example) who year in year out claim to have proved this or that famous conjecture. Or, these people send proofs to real researchers, expecting attention when page one of their "proof" contains an error. So my hopes are not high that a community of semi-qualified people could solve the problems, but....

    Suppose that this community set about collating and putting in context all of the material related to those problems that exists in the **research level** literature and **expounding** it in an extremely clear way. And suppose that real researchers were interested and joined the effort. This resource could be a HUGE contribution to the effort.

    Unfortunately, the only joint efforts in mathematics on the web so far, do not deal seriously with the literature, but approach mathematics at a level of understanding of a first year graduate student. Problems that are well understood by the most brilliant minds on the planet are not going to be solved by people with an understanding as limited as that. It isn't as though some tough problems haven't been solved with elementary methods (the Kayal-Agrawal-Saxena result being a case in point), nor is it true that cranks do not occasionally come up with the goods (de Branges proof of the Bieberbach conjecture being a case in point), but the fact is, these are exceptions to the rule and the vast majority of difficult problems had immensely difficult solutions which took new developments in mathematics over periods of many years before they could be solved. Will a community of non-researchers make developments in modern mathematics? Personally I doubt it.

    But, this is a new idea, hasn't been tried, so who knows where it will lead. As a research mathematician, the idea intrests me, and I would be involved if it headed in the right direction and didn't become a place for cranks to meet and fiddle with polynomials over an unspecified ring.
    • Suppose that this community set about collating and putting in context all of the material related to those problems that exists in the **research level** literature and **expounding** it in an extremely clear way. ...

      That's an excellent idea, and I can see how that this could be an incredible tool for researchers. Ideally, whenever someone has a paper published, they would put a statement of the results into such a wiki. (Ideally the proof would also be included, but copyrights might cause some problems
  • WikiCaps (Score:2, Funny)

    by CRMDmerv. (865529)
    Of course in a Wiki, that's going to be the "P=np" article.

    "The title of this article is incorrect..."

    -merv.
  • by Hoplite3 (671379) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:40PM (#15135762)
    Good News! I've just solved P=NP. It's true if N = 1, and trivially true if P=0. Please donate my $1 million dollars to KDE and tell them to fix the PDF rendering. Maybe my computer science breakthrough will help?

    Personally, I don't think the wiki will do any good. Good collaboration requires face-to-face contact. Anything else is really equivalent to the modern email/conference/preprint system in math. After all, who wants to share their million-dollar insight on a wiki only to get scooped? Double-plus-ungood: how do you decide which researcher did the critical part of the problem? It's tough to say now (and mostly irrelevant, but intellectual pissing matches have been with math since at leave Liebnitz vs. Newton), and it would be harder to decide in the mixed-up collaborative world of the wiki.
  • by zappepcs (820751) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:41PM (#15135764) Journal
    While there are critics, 'wiki style' collaboration is a good thing. It often takes seeing a problem from different perspectives to understand the real nature of the problem. Sure, there will be idiots trying to help out or make their mark on the wiki, but the concept of shared thinking is more powerful than anyone knows. The promise that was HTML added to many people thinking of how to understand something is incredibly faster than the process that eventually created the atomic bomb.

    So, jokes and criticism aside, the OST (open source thinking) is a good plan. Execution may have some drawbacks, but it has goodness in it.
  • Solutions (Score:5, Funny)

    by Ray Radlein (711289) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:41PM (#15135765) Homepage
    The real>/i> question is, will this Wiki be able to reach its solutions in non-Polynomial time?
  • by Ossifer (703813) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:45PM (#15135780)
    Let's combine the wiki with an infinite number of typing monkeys. Eventually one of them will type up a LaTeX file that the STOC or FOCS conference reviewers would accept as a solution finally disproving P=?NP.
  • Ramanujan (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Flying pig (925874) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:50PM (#15135792)
    The (largely self-taught) Indian mathematician Ramanujan was "discovered" almost accidentally as a result of his writing a letter to G F Hardy, at Cambridge, and in one of the few environments where his talents could be recognised.

    A lot of people on Slashdot are degree-obsessed; at an early age they have bought into the idea that everybody who does not have a formal academic education to at least PhD level is necessarily unable to contribute anything to research. (This is not just the chip on my shoulder talking, but as someone with a degree from Fen Poly who has recruited a fair number of graduates over the years, I know it takes far more than a degree or two to make a scientist, mathematician or even a developer. Curiosity, persistence, the ability to see connections are all important.) Although this Wiki may well fail, it might just bring to light a few more Ramanujans. The world does not consist solely of North Americans, and there are doubtless plenty of educated people in other cultures who do not have access to the networks that bring some people to the fore while others, equally well endowed, may never get an opportunity.

    • I will agree that not everyone with a degree deserved it, but there are a lot more of those people than there are undiscovered geniuses. And anyone arrogant enough to claim to be an undiscovered genius probably isn't.
    • Re:Ramanujan (Score:4, Interesting)

      by jpflip (670957) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @02:03PM (#15136062)
      It's true that being educated does not necessarily make one a good researcher, nor does being uneducated mean one can't have good ideas. I'm not someone who would say that the current system is perfect or that the right people always get opportunities - it's not and they don't. I think the wiki is a great idea and I wish it luck, but I worry that in practice it will get bogged down and neglected. Ramanujan was a genius who did not have the opportunity for an advanced education. There may be people like that, but it's not so clear that they will (1) work on math problems (most people don't have the time to devote to such things) or (2) have extensive access to the internet and the wiki. I expect that this wiki will be mostly filled with postings from people who have both time and a good internet connection: people in the industrialized nations, not Ramanujans. My feeling is that the vast bulk of the postings by amateurs will be honest attempts to get up to speed or crackpot theories. Experts will attempt to describe things to the newbies and respond to the crackpots, but they'll eventually get tired. Crackpots have astonishing amounts of time to promote their views and an incredible resistance to seeing their errors. The site is unlikely to be able to discover the next Ramanujan because (as other posters have pointed out) the signal-to-noise in the entries is likely to be low enough that experts will stop reading it in detail. It may, however, turn out to be a great resource for understandable descriptions of current research on these problems.
    • A lot of people on Slashdot are degree-obsessed; at an early age they have bought into the idea that everybody who does not have a formal academic education to at least PhD level is necessarily unable to contribute anything to research.

      Aside from a few special circumstances and accidents, this is largely true. It is extraordinarily difficult to make a meaningful contribution to a field without extensive knowledge of that field and the work that has been done. Only the very rare geniuses like Ramanujan can

  • Until I read the entry on the P vs NP problem, I thought I understood what the problem was. Now, I'm not so sure. What confuses me (from the article) is this: The article mentions that you must pare down the number of students receiving dorm rooms from 400 to 100 and that no pair can be composed of two students with incompatibilities. At first glance, I'm not sure HOW this is an "unsolvable" problem. Would I not just select and group 100 students at random then rearrange the pairs as I found incompatibilit
    • Realistically, you could probably find a solution by brute force fairly quickly, because for the purposes of a dorm room, most people are compatible with most other people. But this is still clearly a problem of satisfiability [wikipedia.org].

      For example, it's within the bounds of the problem to assume that each student is only compatible with, say, two others. With that restriction, it seems much harder, but it's the same problem. You can do an exhaustive search to assign students to rooms, but your search will necessaril
    • Re:P vs NP Question (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anthony Liguori (820979) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @01:29PM (#15135933) Homepage
      At first glance, I'm not sure HOW this is an "unsolvable" problem. Would I not just select and group 100 students at random then rearrange the pairs as I found incompatibilities? Can someone clue me in to what I'm missing here?

      What makes a problem NP is not whether it's solvable but rather how long it takes to solve. The algorithm you propose is a search algorithm. Consider what would happen if your list of incompatible students was so large that within the group of 100 students you randomly choose, there is not a single possible arrangement of pairs. This means you would have to choose another group of 100 students. It's a minor refinement but an important one.

      Now consider if that list was so large that there was only a single possible group of 100 that contains an arrangement of pairs that worked. Now consider that within that group of 100, there was only one good possible arrangement. If you're very unlucky, and you choose these set of 100 and arrangement of pairs last, you have to try every possible combination before finding the right one. Okay, so what?

      Lets see how many possible answers you'd have to try. Within a group of 100 students, there are 100 choose 2 possible arrangements. There are 400 choose 100 possible choices of 100 students. n choose k is really n! / (k! (n-k)!) where n! is n * (n - 1) * ... * 1. Since we're trying every possible combination, this gives us:

      [400! / (100! 300!)] * [100! / (2! 98!)]

      Your standard calculator is not going to be able to solve this one but if you have an arbitrary precision calculator (like bc), you get:

      11097181218193970931519891416648407846484785328507 66515247971418153526438677698477539372878051288400 0

      Which is an awfully large number. That number is so large, in fact, that even if you have a computer that could check one possible solution with every electron in the universe, until the Sun supernova's, you'd still not find the answer.

      Now, that depends on really bad luck. You can construct problems though that given average luck, you would not find the solution in the lifetime of the universe. This is what cryptography is based on.

      Compare this to a standard sorting algorithm. To sort the list [3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 2, 1, 0] given a crappy algorithm like bubble sort requires n*n = 100 computations. You can solve this problem the same way using search though. You merely have to randomly arrange the list in every possible way and check to see if your random arrangement is sorted. There are n! possible arrangements of a list of n elements so there are 10! = 3628800 possible answers to search. You can see that even a crappy algorithm like bubble sort is much better than search.

      The difference is even greater with larger lists. A problem that is only solvable via search is considered NP. A problem that is solvable with an algorithm in polynomial time (n*n is a polynomial) is considered P. The N in NP stands for non-polynomial.

      So the problem here is whether there exists a polynomial solution for these set of problems that we've labelled NP. What makes this even more significant is that it has been proven that if we find a polynomial solution for one NP problem, we can create solutions for any NP problem. A lot is riding on the lack of existence of a polynomail solution for NP problems. If someone where to prove that there are indeed polynomial solutions to NP problems it would be earth-shattering. After the initial shock, it would also open up a whole new world of mathematics since a lot of things we didn't think were possible to do efficiently became possible.
      • I think people need an informal definition of NP. Here it goes: A decision problem is a yes/no question. A decision problem is in P if we can solve it in polynomial time. Example: is n divisble by 3? The length of the input to the algorithm is log n (the number of binary digits in n). We can divide a number by 3 in quadratic time in the length of the input. So we can certainly decide in essentially (log n)^2 steps if n is divisible by 3. (log n)^2 is a polynomial (of degree 2) in the length of the i
      • The N in NP stands for non-polynomial.
        Actually, NP stands for non-deterministic polynomial time. Non-deterministic meaning that you could find a solution in polynomial time if you had a computer that could consider all possible search paths at once. P is deterministic polynomial time, i.e. you consider one search path at a time.
      • Within a group of 100 students, there are 100 choose 2 possible arrangements.

        Something seems fishy about this, though that may be because it's 6:30 in the morning as I begin to write this.

        It seems to me that there are (100 choose 2) possible pairs (not arrangements) of students. I think that to get the number of arrangements you first have to select 50 out of the 100 students to be the "left side", so to speak, of each pair. That's (100 choose 50).

        Then, you have to select a permutation of the remaining
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:53PM (#15135812)
    In a sense, the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences [att.com], hosted by AT&T Research, does this job already.

    With over 100,000 web pages, searchable, with posters' email addresses given, and both internal and external hotlinks and citations to hardcopy literature, this has been the leading collaborationware in Mathematics. The Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (or OEIS) recently faced a problem with increasing numbers of clueless postings.

    The distinguished panel of editors, under Dr. Neil J. A. Sloane, first added a keyword of "probation." Submissions so tagged, unless okayed by an editor, are deleted after a reasonable time. At my urging, citing the history of Slashdot, they even more recently adopted the keyword "less" -- meaning less than interesting, but better than probation. "Less" sequences stay in the database, but are given minimum priority in searches.

    Similarly, MathWorld [wolfram.com] is a form of collaborationware or pseudowiki. Although edited by Dr. Eric W. Weisstein and his staff, it encourages submission by form from anyone, and posts attribution to such submissions, and lists of contributors.

    I contend that web-based systems have substantially affected the practice of Mathematics. Social mechanisms such as pioneered by Slashdot contribute to weeding out useless from interesting contributions. As with Wikipedia, one's academic credentials mean nothing here. What matters is the quality of one's submissions, as evaluated by one's online peers.

    There also many fine Math blogs, but that's another topic.

    -- Jonathan Vos Post [livejournal.com]
  • Insight Required (Score:5, Insightful)

    by chrisreedy (127131) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @12:58PM (#15135824)
    Speaking as someone with a Ph.D. in mathematics ...

    These problems are all incredibly difficult. A lot of very good mathematicians have thought about them, in some cases for over a hundred years. In some cases, even understanding the problem requires an advanced mathematical education. If there was anything approaching an easy solution, it would have been found already. That said ...

    Problems like these always require some insight. Typically, either a way to relate the problem to some other unexpected area, or some new kind of machinery that creates a leverage against the problem.

    Personally, I wouldn't expect that from such an effort.
  • The logical outcome [userfriendly.org] of people using the new wiki.
  • Let's not forget... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by MudX (589181)
    Einstein was a patent clerk.
    • ... that Einstein had advanced training in physics. He was working as a patent clerk because professorships were hard to come by.

      I often wonder if the "Einstein was a patent clerk who had difficulty with math" mythos has empowered far too many crackpots who don't understand the problems they write about.
    • Exactly. Out of all the thousands, or maybe millions of patent clerks that have ever lived only one has ever produced good original work in physics. So let's hope that there are no patent clerks contributing to this project.
  • I remember... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wpegden (931091) on Saturday April 15, 2006 @01:55PM (#15136021)
    I remember when I was in high school and someone first explained the P=NP problem to me. This was certainly someone who was very smart. I remember he had made big bucks at Microsoft doing some sort of software work. He told me he was reading a book about the problem (I'm not sure which one, there are many), and was going to "work on it". He told me about the millenium prize competition. But he said something else that really underlined for me the disconnect between Academia and the business world:

    He told me that if he he solved the problem by showing P=NP (instead of P!=NP, which "most mathematicians believe"), he wouldn't publish his proof. Instead, he would setup a website that would take credit card payments to solve problems quickly (for example, packing boxes into the back of a UPS truck, or various traveling salesman problems). At the time, I though this was a little antisocial, but not much more.

    Later, when I had more mathematical training, I looked back on this and realized how revealing this attitude was: of course, if someone proves P=NP, the proof will almost certainly not be accompanied by practical algorithms which are significantly better than those used already for problems on most scales. Of course, the idea that he was going to solve this problem without any collaboration or formal education in logic or complexity theory demonstrated the arrogance typical of many super-successful business-people. I can't help but remark that for all the stupid patents on software "ideas" and sometimes algorithms, we're lucky that, most of the time, theoretical advances are made not by people like this... and and so people publish their results, and are rewarded with respect rather than dollars.

    Imagine the state of our theoretical knowledge in mathematics and computer science if, even in Academia, every discovery of a new algorithm or idea resulted in a patent application, and was jealously guarded as a secret which could produce profit. Unfortunately, this is already largely the state of things in the wet sciences (unnecessarily so, I would argue, and point to mathematics as my evidence).

    As for the wiki thing: I don't think most ordinary people are like this guy, so hey, good for the wiki. (I think this attitude is taught by the business world, and not somehow the other way around). Unfortunately, I fear that the millenium problems are deep enough that amateurs will have trouble making a big impact. There are a few amateur contributions to mathematics occasionally, but there hasn't been a significant one in a long time. (The last was arguably by Marjorie Rice, a housewife who essentially resolved the question of the number of different ways to tile the plane with convex pentagons). Astronomy is probably the last big field where amateurs play a really significant role.
    • How would he vouch for the security of the CC payments?
    • I wish my mod points hadn't expired -- your story does a great job illustrating (a small part of) the gap between amateurs who think they know what P vs. NP (or any of the millenium problems, really) means, and the professionals who actually attempt to resolve it. I am very much in favor of amateur efforts, and occasionally they produce new results, but too often they are wasted trying to solve the major, field-defining questions without a real understanding of the subtleties involved. I would suggest that
    • Re:I remember... (Score:3, Insightful)

      by nwbvt (768631)
      "But he said something else that really underlined for me the disconnect between Academia and the business world"

      And your entire post underlines one for me. Believe it or not, the academic world is full of plenty of people just like your friend. Just as plenty of complex mathematical problems are solved (and published) by those in the business world. This isn't a business vs academia thing, this is just an example of an arrogant hack.

      "Imagine the state of our theoretical knowledge in mathematics and

  • think about it, you could take the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riemann_hypothesis? [wikipedia.org] and create a boinc client to test the theory with different #'s.

    find an example that fails, and split the million with the client that proved/disproved the result.

  • ...someone who is coming into the field with a clean slate. It's because of the current ways of dealing with numbers, equations, and topography that these problems appear to be unsolvable. I'm all for the wiki and people education themselves about the problems (reading and thinking about them reinvigorated -my- interest in mathematics) but I don't think that a session of collaborative "group think" will help solve these problems. The answers will almost surely come as a "divine spark" of genius to someon
  • ..... or do you think it requires a lot more than a semi-qualified community to approach the problem?"

    It's Not Like Random People Could generate something as complicated as, say, LINUX and actually have it stable and secure, right?

    Never underestimate the value of adding a couple of newbies into the stew with people who can filter out the wheat from the chaff.

    A quick story:
    Back in the 70's the the standard example for teaching first-time programmers while loops was generally binary search algorith

  • When I read the headline and skimmed the site, I was at first slightly optimistic that it might develop into a good resource that, if nothing more, would give a good idea of the problems and their context to a non-specialist audience. Probably not discover anything new, but quality exposition is badly needed in a lot of mathematics, so that's still a net gain.

    Now I've looked at the site more thoroughly, and I don't believe it anymore.

    Context: I'm a graduate student in Theoretical Computer Science, so I

  • For a Wiki which already exists which archives existing knowledge on computational complexity in great detail, particularly the P=NP question, see The Complexity Zoo [caltech.edu].

    The website isn't exactly lightning-fast, so I'm sure they'll thank me for the link... :)
  • by Lando (9348)
    Proof: Wiki users will not contribute to the millennium problem

    Counter Example
    Suppose: Problem will be solved
    Suppose: Wiki users > 0
    Suppose: All educated members of the community do not work on the wiki

    Thus: EU educated users
    : WU wiki users
    : MP is problem with MP being millennium problem

    Since we know that P will be solved, we know that EU likelyhood of solving problem + ~EU likelyhood of solving problem are == 1

    Thus,
    • Then we must assume that there is no reason for anyone to seek an education, because they are noting going to be able to learn anything that is not known. I guess it's time to stop investigating anythin if you are not an expert.

      This is actually the opposite of the real conclusion from most of the negative posts... the claim is not that you can't discover anything new without an education. But we aren't just talking about "something new," we're talking about arguably the most difficult open problems in fie

  • let all who want to participate do so

    and have the professionals moderate and approve

  • I did most of the coursework for an honours degree in Pure Mathematics (albeit 15 years ago), but I can't see how I could contribute more to a project like this than editing stuff for readability and clarity.

    But maybe that's useful... perhaps I should try editing some of the mathematics articles at Wikipedia.

    Danny.

  • At the end of the page, I found the following quote:

    "I never let my schooling get in the way of my education." -- Mark Twain

    Slashdot must have a great oracle hidden somewhere. If only they published it, at least the P=NP problem would be solved.

"I may be synthetic, but I'm not stupid" -- the artificial person, from _Aliens_

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