Rafael Núñez, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied the mental and social process of doing mathematics, points out that problem solving is just another human activity. When mathematicians work together in front of a blackboard, they communicate in subtle ways with their voice and body language, clues that will be lost in online collaborations. But mathematicians will adjust to the new medium, just like people have adjusted to doing all kinds of other things in a connected world, Núñez notes: “Anything we do online is different, not just mathematics.”
In the end, the open nature of the project may have been its most important feature. As Gowers wrote on his blog, Polymath may be “the first fully documented account of how a serious [math] research problem was solved, complete with false starts, dead ends, etcetera.” Or, as Tao puts it, the project was valuable because it showed “an example of how the sausage is made.”
This article was originally published with the title Problem Solved, LOL.