As a fourth-year grad student in math at the University of Minnesota, I spend a lot of time thinking about math problems, but I get worn out when I think about the same problem for too long. Sometimes it can be helpful to take a break and work on something more fun, such as…other math problems. Easier problems. Problems you know how to do. Doing this can feel like you are procrastinating and accomplishing something at the same time. In my first post here I want to tell you about a great resource for endless math problems of every sort of difficulty: Math Stack Exchange.
This website has the added benefit that in return for your hard work spent answering math problems (i.e. procrastination), you receive “reputation points.” The more points you get the smarter you feel, even if you could have spent that time on your own research.
The Stack Exchange website is a child of Stack Overflow, a site created in 2008 as a forum for professional programmers to request and share answers to the many questions they come across while coding. The best answers are voted up and move higher in the list of answers so you can easily find them. Poor answers and questions that are off topic are voted down so they won’t have a negative impact on the forum. The site is somewhat like Yahoo Answers, except users will say intelligent things. If someone writes a nice solution and you vote it up, they will be awarded more reputation points. As it turns out, fake points on the internet are a huge motivator. Hundreds of people are waiting at all hours of the day, hoping they know the answer to your question. Hardly ever am I faced with a coding problem that hasn’t been answered already on Stack Overflow.
There are at least 150 communities with their own Stack Exchange sites. If you want to know why coffee is comforting or if your bougainvillea is turning into a magic beanstalk, there’s an answer on Stack Exchange. If you want a user named Lord Voldemort to tell you why wizards need wands, you can find that, too.
Math Stack Exchange (Math.SE) is a forum for any sort of math question. There is a similar site called Math Overflow for questions related to open research problems, but on Math.SE any question is fair game, as long as you have put in some effort to figure it out yourself. If you are looking for an endless feed of calculus questions, this is the website for you. The first question I answered on Math.SE was related to circle maps, which is something I’m currently studying. Often in math it can feel like few people care about the highly specific abstract problems you are solving. However, there might be people out there who do, and there’s a good possibility they are on Stack Exchange. Some of them might even need your help; they will be sure give you fake points in return.