Subject: Re: Open letter to those who believe in a right to free software
From: Ben_Tilly@trepp.com
Date: Sun, 31 Oct 1999 16:13:16 -0500


Karsten wrote:
> > And math develops slowly not because of its economic model, but very
> > simply because it is hard.
>
> Does it and is it?
>
Time for a biased opinion?

One *very* biased opinion coming up...

> Is math any harder, say, than chemistry or drug development?
>
No, but it does not scale as well.  Additionally the current
mathematical establishment is *very* dysfunctional when it
comes to communication...

> What about times like WWII and the Cold War era when certain areas of
> basic research (nuclear physics, crypto) were heavily funded for
> strategic reasons.  Is there an incentives problem in math?  Are we or
> are we not producing an economically efficient level of algorithms and
> proofs?

The volume of math today is absolutely incredible.  But is it
working well together?

Here is a description of a typical department math talk.  A talk
is scheduled, and a group of mathematicians shows up at the
appointed hour.  Most of the mathematicians know they will be
lost incredibly quickly, so they thoughtfully have brought
themselves something else to do.

About 15 minutes into the talk the person at the front is just
getting to the actual topic of research (having put it in the
context of mathematics in general, the research field, etc), and
most people are already lost.  Therefore they are reading papers,
grading, sleeping - in other words doing what they expected to
spend most of the hour doing.  The person who invited the speaker
is following (after all you invite someone in your own area), and
the speaker is going strong...

This is standard and accepted.  It is also why I could not bear
spending the rest of my life in mathematics.

The actual structure of the mathematics research community today
is that it is split into groups of a dozen or so people per
area who have poor communication with outside mathematics.  There
are some stars, but by and large people are ignorant of what goes
on outside their own area, and are unable to explain their
research to anyone outside of a select group.  Each group is also
a bit of an old boys network.  Given that nobody else can judge
their work, they wind up reviewing each other's papers,
recommending each other's students for tenure, etc, etc.  Real
world tenure decisions are not - indeed cannot - be made on
quality for the simple fact that your colleagues at your school
cannot read and judge your papers.  Thus for the majority, success
lies in getting in with a group whose recommendations hold weight...

Two books that I recommend, "Why The Professor Can't Teach" and
"The Mathematical Experience".  The first has been described by
several mathematicians of my aquaintance as, "My biography."  The
other gives a flavor of what sorts of things do get covered in
mathematics and briefly mentions the dynamics that I describe
above.

Cheers,
Ben