Polymath as an epistemic community: Analyzing the digital traces of the Polymath Project

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The Polymath Project is an online collaborative enterprise that was initiated in 2009, when Timothy Gowers asked whether and how groups could work together to solve mathematical problems that “do not naturally split up into a vast number of subtasks.” Gowers proposed to answer this question himself by actually trying to set up such a collaboration, based on interactions taking place in the comment-threads of a series of posts on a WordPress blog. Hence, the first project officially started in early 2009, to be proclaimed successful only 6 weeks later (Gowers and Nielsen 2009). From its inception until April 2018, 15 more Polymath problems (and a handful of smaller or related ones) have been launched. These projects have attracted attention from different scholarly communities, including the philosophy of mathematical practices, from the perspective of which the Polymath Project can be seen as a vast repository of mathematics in action. This chapter continues previous work by its authors on the topic in question and topics related. More specifically, for the purposes of this volume, it is our aim to both summarize and expand upon these earlier contributions. The starting point is the above observation that in the past decade, the issue of “massively collaborative mathematics” (to be qualified below) has drawn quite some attention. However, does it also warrant intensive philosophical attention in particular? For, as exciting as these developments might be from mathematical and other points of view, the enhanced possibilities that have come with it do not per se give rise to any philosophical import. In Van Bendegem (2011), one of us has indeed tentatively argued for the philosophical relevance of these new dynamics of proof construction flowing from the wide availability and efficiency of Internet technology. We shall below briefly rehearse and update the argument given there.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of the History and Philosophy of Mathematical Practice
EditorsBharath Sriraman
Number of pages30
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-030-19071-2
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jan 2021


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