Subject: Re: Open letter to those who believe in a right to free software
From: Bernard Lang <>
Date: Mon, 1 Nov 1999 09:26:57 +0100

Nice field observation report ...

Now, what do you deduce from it ?
  (assuming accuracy and generality)

 - that venture capital should come in and get the field better
   organized ?
 - ... and be rewarded by exclusivity on using results ?
 - that other fields do not do that (how do you know ?)
   and are hence more efficient ?
 - ... or is it common in sciences ? ... and in other areas of knowledge
   (read Sokal)   but shows more in math ?
 - that math is indeed very difficult ?
 - that it is surprising there there is nevertheless progress in the
   field (or no longer) ?
 - ... and it might be woth investigating how and why ?
 - that most mathematicians are not really contributing,
   only some of the best ones ?
 - ... and that you know how to identify the good ones (or you don't) ?
 - ... and that the other are completely useless ?
   or possibly they fulfill another role ?
  just a very incomplete collection of questions

On Sun, Oct 31, 1999 at 04:13:16PM -0500, wrote:
> 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

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