Thursday, August 19, 2010

Paradigm change in the practice of science?

John Markoff writes an interesting article on how fundamentally critical discourse in mathematics and physics is being transformed by the web. The case in point was the claim by a researcher that he had demonstrated that P (the set of problems that can be easily solved) does not equal NP (those problems that are difficult to solve, but easy to verify once a solution is found). This inequality is fundamental to the modern cryptography required for electronic commerce and digital privacy. The proposed proof was found to have significant shortcomings within weeks, instead of the months to years required by exchanges of written papers and debate at scientific meetings, because discussion and analysis was carried out in real time on blogs and a wiki that had been quickly set up for the purpose of collectively analyzing the paper. Clay Shirky, author of “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age” argues:
....that the emergence of these new collaborative tools is paving the way for a second scientific revolution in the same way the printing press created a demarcation between the age of alchemy and the age of chemistry...a new set of norms is emerging about what it means to do mathematics, assuming coordinated participation.

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