In Praise of Teamwork

Left to Right: John Jones, Rachel Davis, and Christelle Vincent work on the LMFDB.

Left to Right: John Jones, Rachel Davis, and Christelle Vincent work on the LMFDB.

Part of what makes math blogging so interesting is that it helps to build connections between the people creating math and those consuming math. The evolution in math blogging and blossoming of math on twitter has done a great deal to dispel the crazy myth of math as a solitary pursuit, or worse yet, of mathematicians as weirdo loners. Mathematicians, just like other scientists (or humans for that matter), like to work together.

This sort of working-togetherness and community mathematics can come in many shapes: collaborative research, math blogging, and open source software initiatives, to name a few. I was first inspired to think about this by a wonderful portrait of Terrence Tao in The New York Times this week, calling attention to some of Tao’s exceptional work in collaborative math and mathemematical outreach.

But then those feelings were further amplified when this week found me at the LMFDB workshop in Corvallis, Oregon where I am sitting directly at the heart-center of an incredibly cool community math project. So, being here as I am on the front lines, I wanted to share a bit about the process. I’ve written about the LMFDB before, but to recap, it’s an online database of L-functions and “friends.” The database is open source, edited mostly through github and the kind and selfless hearts of so many contributors.

So here we are, 33 mathematicians, 33 laptops, 7 days and an unlimited desire to classify and sort things. On the first day, David Farmer, one of the LMFDB founding fathers asked that we begin by sorting ourselves according to what we felt we could contribute. He then recommended that we start by “pair programming.” Yes, this is when you sit next to someone and write code together on one laptop. Farmer said, “you might think this would cut productivity in half, but on the contrary, it doubles it since fewer errors are made.” So you see: teamwork.

This is how we spend our days, small groups clustered around tables pair programming whatever pieces of the LMFDB has sparked our interest. Some people are adding new sections to the database, perhaps a whole new wing dedicated to modular forms of half integral weight. Other people are working on the exposition of the database, writing concise descriptions of the objects for non-experts nested in knowls on the page. Some people are skimming the database for typos and html errors to make the whole thing more good-looking — seriously, nobody wants to get the L-functions from an ugly website, right?

After spending the entire day making changes and building new things and all the while programming in pairs, we have an end-of-day report. This is when the collaboration really kicks off. Each small group gives a brief recap of what they’ve done, and it is submitted to the jury of 33 for approval. Everything that goes into this database has passed before the community and been the subject of some intense and thoughtful scrutiny, from small changes (like, maybe these query boxes should be left aligned?) to huge ones (like, do you think we should change our entire labeling scheme?) gets a full-blown conversation. So you see: community.

I think the LMFDB project is an interesting example of extreme community collaboration in mathematics, but it is certainly not unique; this sort of community exists around lots of open source software initiatives. And of course this type of intense collaboration can also exist around the good old fashioned doing of mathematics.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking, “why are you telling me all this on a blog about math blogs?” Because, dear reader, I think this is the point of it all. Blogging abut math, and blogging about math blogs, or even blogging about blogging about math blogs (like I’m doing right this second), is all about brining the community together. So while writing about the LMFDB conference is not directly writing about a math blog, it feels like a friend of math blogging. And I think it’s important to remember why we blog about math.

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