The highest level of mathematics has traditionally been seen as a solitary endeavour, to produce a proof for review and acceptance by research peers. Mathematics is now at a remarkable inflexion point, with new technology radically extending the power and limits of individuals. Crowdsourcing pulls together diverse experts to solve problems; symbolic computation tackles huge routine calculations; and computers check proofs too long and complicated for humans to comprehend. The Study of Mathematical Practice is an emerging interdisciplinary field which draws on philosophy and social science to understand how mathematics is produced. Online mathematical activity provides a novel and rich source of data for empirical investigation of mathematical practice - for example the community question-answering system mathoverflow contains around 40,000 mathematical conversations, and polymath collaborations provide transcripts of the process of discovering proofs. Our preliminary investigations have demonstrated the importance of “soft” aspects such as analogy and creativity, alongside deduction and proof, in the production of mathematics, and have given us new ways to think about the roles of people and machines in creating new mathematical knowledge. We discuss further investigation of these resources and what it might reveal. Crowdsourced mathematical activity is an example of a “social machine”, a new paradigm, identified by Berners-Lee, for viewing a combination of people and computers as a single problem-solving entity, and the subject of major international research endeavours. We outline a future research agenda for mathematics social machines, a combination of people, computers, and mathematical archives to create and apply mathematics, with the potential to change the way people do mathematics, and to transform the reach, pace, and impact of mathematics research.
Comment (from this Blueprint): In this paper, Martin and Pease look at how mathematics happens online, emphasising how this embodies the picture of mathematics given by Polya and Lakatos, two central figures in philosophy of mathematical practice. They look at multiple venues of online mathematics, including the polymath projects of collaborative problem-solving, and mathoverflow, which is a question-and-answer forum. By looking at the discussions that take place when people are doing maths online, they argue that you can get rich new kinds of data about the processes of mathematical discovery and understanding. They discuss how online mathematics can become a “social machine”, and how this can open up new ways of doing mathematics.