Student's Site Connects Mathematicians Worldwide

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Nearly a year after UC Berkeley mathematics graduate student Anton Geraschenko created a site that allows mathematicians to share information in a question-and-answer format, the site is "humming along pretty well," seeing about 240,000 visits per month and connecting people around the world in the name of math.

MathOverflow, created in September 2009 with the intention of pairing professional mathematicians who need information with those who can provide it, receives about 30 new questions and 100 new answers each day and almost half of the site's visits are international.

Geraschenko got the idea for the format after fellow graduate student David Brown showed him StackOverflow, a program that allows people to share computer coding questions. He said he was immediately attracted to the question-and-answer format and the software, made public under the hosting service Stack Exchange.

"If somebody is reading something and they know you have got a question, then ... their job is to see if they can answer the question," he said. "Whereas if you read an article or Wikipedia page, it's not like they have a job at the end of it."

The question-and-answer format also lent itself to building a community, Geraschenko said.

"It has the feeling of a conversation." he said. "So if you converse with people a lot, you kind of get a feeling that, this person here, they're very fair and they're very attentive."

As one of the sites published during Stack Exchange's trial period, it is not owned by Stack Exchange, Inc., like the sites started under the newer business model, and is thus run by and for mathematicians, Geraschenko said.

"I'm a member of the mathematical community, and the people who use MathOverflow now pretty much trust me with the whole database and managing the site," he said. "They know I am not trying to make any money off this, so there really is no conflict of interest. I am really going to do what is best for the math community."

Additionally, MathOverflow is run using a system of "reputation," meaning that the more someone posts, the more opportunities become accessible to them. Such opportunities include editing others' posts, voting on their quality and voting to close a question.

The site fosters the exchange of knowledge between people of different mathematical expertise, said UC Berkeley alumnus William Jagy, who began posting in January and has since asked six questions and answered 81.

"(There are) people like me who are one way or another pretty senior and mostly answer," he said. "The other extreme is ... people who don't know very much and just keep asking, asking, asking."

Despite the varying levels of expertise, questions are commonly closed if deemed unrelated to "research-level" mathematics.

"MathOverflow is meant to be a little corner of the Internet for professional mathematicians," Geraschenko said.


Contact Samantha Strimling at [email protected]

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