Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hexagram 18

Filed under: General — Tags: — m759 @ 9:14 AM

(Continued from June 14, 2007)

The late William P. Thurston on how mathematical knowledge may decay:

"There are several obvious mechanisms of decay. The experts in a subject retire and die, or simply move on to other subjects and forget. Mathematics is commonly explained and recorded in symbolic and concrete forms that are easy to communicate, rather than in conceptual forms that are easy to understand once communicated. Translation in the direction conceptual -> concrete and symbolic is much easier than translation in the reverse direction, and symbolic forms often replaces [sic ] the conceptual forms of understanding. And mathematical conventions and taken-for-granted knowledge change, so older texts may become hard to understand.

In short, mathematics only exists in a living community of mathematicians that spreads understanding and breaths [sic ] life into ideas both old and new. The real satisfaction from mathematics is in learning from others and sharing with others. All of us have clear understanding of a few things and murky concepts of many more. There is no way to run out of ideas in need of clarification. The question of who is the first person to ever set foot on some square meter of land is really secondary. Revolutionary change does matter, but revolutions are few, and they are not self-sustaining — they depend very heavily on the community of mathematicians."

At mathoverflow.net, October 30, 2010.
     The discussion has been "closed as no longer relevant."
     For another Thurston quote of interest, see a more recent
     mathoverflow discussion "closed as not a real question."

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