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Steingart, Alma. A Group Theory of Group Theory: Collaborative Mathematics and the ‘Uninvention’ of a 1000-page Proof
2012, Social Studies of Science, 42(2): 185-213.
Added by: Fenner Stanley Tanswell
Over a period of more than 30 years, more than 100 mathematicians worked on a project to classify mathematical objects known as finite simple groups. The Classification, when officially declared completed in 1981, ranged between 300 and 500 articles and ran somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 journal pages. Mathematicians have hailed the project as one of the greatest mathematical achievements of the 20th century, and it surpasses, both in scale and scope, any other mathematical proof of the 20th century. The history of the Classification points to the importance of face-to-face interaction and close teaching relationships in the production and transformation of theoretical knowledge. The techniques and methods that governed much of the work in finite simple group theory circulated via personal, often informal, communication, rather than in published proofs. Consequently, the printed proofs that would constitute the Classification Theorem functioned as a sort of shorthand for and formalization of proofs that had already been established during personal interactions among mathematicians. The proof of the Classification was at once both a material artifact and a crystallization of one community’s shared practices, values, histories, and expertise. However, beginning in the 1980s, the original proof of the Classification faced the threat of ‘uninvention’. The papers that constituted it could still be found scattered throughout the mathematical literature, but no one other than the dwindling community of group theorists would know how to find them or how to piece them together. Faced with this problem, finite group theorists resolved to produce a ‘second-generation proof’ to streamline and centralize the Classification. This project highlights that the proof and the community of finite simple groups theorists who produced it were co-constitutive–one formed and reformed by the other.

Comment (from this Blueprint): Steingart is a sociologist who charts the history and sociology of the development of the extremely large and highly collaborative Classification Theorem. She shows that the proof involved a community deciding on shared values, standards of reliability, expertise, and ways of communicating. For example, the community became tolerant of so-called “local errors” so long as these did not put the main result at risk. Furthermore, Steingart discusses how the proof’s text is distributed across a wide number of places and requires expertise to navigate, leaving the proof in danger of uninvention if the experts retire from mathematics.

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