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Bill Thurston answers: What's a mathematician to do? (mathoverflow.net)
92 points by ColinWright 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments


And predictably the question has been closed, as "no longer relevant [...] This question is unlikely to help any future visitors; it is only relevant to a small geographic area, a specific moment in time, or an extraordinarily narrow situation that is not generally applicable to the worldwide audience of the internet."

Makes me wonder how Stack Exchange is still getting both good questions and good answers.

Looking at the history: the question was posted in Oct 2010, and got 14 answers in its next 5 days, the last of which was Thurston's. A year and a bit later, on Jan 1 2012, two more people posted answers. The question was closed shortly after that, as "no longer relevant". I think you can consider it the opinion of the MathOverflow community that they no longer want to see new answers to the old question and the “already seen” question bumped to the front page again, and closing is a way of doing that (all it does is prevent new answers), and it is not intended as judgment cast on the quality of the question or its answers.

I am active in a few Stack Exchange communities (sites), and two things that strike me are:

- The communities can differ a lot in how they approach things (when they feel closure is appropriate, for instance).

- As in most online communities (Wikipedia etc.), people who have been around for a while tend to get insular and think in terms of their own subculture, and do not always understand what impression their actions (in this example the actual text of the “no longer relevant” closure) make on outsiders or newcomers. On Wikipedia there's an actual policy about this, but I got tired of typing [[WP:BITE]] over and over again. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Please_do_not_bite_t...)

>Makes me wonder how Stack Exchange is still getting both good questions and good answers.

For math, it's retired or semi-retired professors who spend their days answering relatively basic questions from undergrads and such.

It's amazing actually. I got more professor time on stackexchange than I did in real life.

> Makes me wonder how Stack Exchange is still getting both good questions and good answers.

It's quite sad, but it seems like the same thing that happened to wikipedia in that the kind of people who take on moderation duty are the kind of people that like enforcing rules. The more deletes they can get the better.

Well, this is MathOverflow, which is quite separate from the rest of StackExchange and has their own rules. Although this particular question did receive an inspiring answer from an eminent mathematician, MO specifically wants to be a site for research mathematicians to ask and answer each others' research questions. They need to be pretty strict about closing off-topic questions so as not to be overwhelmed with undergrad homework issues or so-called "soft questions."

Probably because they have the discipline to close questions that aren't appropriate, even when people like the answers. Good for them.

Honestly, it would deter me from ever answering a question there again. They could create a different category for these types of questions, other than simply closing them. The "moderators" are too self-absorbed in their self-righteousness.

Why? The only thing closing a question does is prevent new people from answering. In some sense it's in fact a better “deal” for those who did answer before the question was closed, because they'll have less “competition”. (Of course no one is thinking in those terms, but I'm trying to understand why questions being closed or not should be a deterrence to someone answering questions that are open.) Where do terms like “self-righteousness” come from?

(Also note that it's not the “moderators” who close or open questions, but the community itself: anyone with over 3000 points can close or reopen, which right now is over 500 users on MathOverflow. It's a small site as it's for research mathematicians; for comparison on Stack Overflow there are over 46000 users who can vote to close or reopen questions.)

Or they could create a different website for these types of questions. Or you could. There's no reason for SE to be all things to all people; I like that they have a focus.

> too self-absorbed in their self-righteousness

I'm feeling the self-righteousness, but it's not coming from SE...

>I'm feeling the self-righteousness, but it's not coming from SO...


I am relaxed. Don't add patronising to self-righteous.

Good SEO.

Thurston is low dimensional topologist and Fields medalist. From the Wikipedia page:

'In fact, Thurston resolved so many outstanding problems in foliation theory in such a short period of time that it led to a kind of exodus from the field, where advisors counselled students against going into foliation theory[1] because Thurston was "cleaning out the subject"'

was, sadly.

Doing mathematics and furthering human understanding is great. The problem is that no one wants to tell you how the sausage is made . It’s mainly on the backs of graduate students that have no chance of being professors. The ones that know how to code go into competition with people that have Bachelors in CS and four years of work experience . The good ones can land a Data science job . The ones that can’t become adjuncts forever in some community college. There are fewer and fewer that can win this rich mans game .

If you scroll down, you'll find an answer where it appears that math broke their brain and they left to go start a restaurant and then did other things like computer graphics. The math department is home to some tragically spectacular mental breakdowns.

But, I don't think his answer is limited just to mathematicians. The gist of it is 'Go do good things and be smart.' I think those same things could apply to even someone without a high school diploma, though probably with less chance of efficacy.

It's a great response and unfortunate that they closed it.

Thurston has a great answer. People need to avoid thinking in academic departments and focus on asking which problems are important to them. Focus on problem first, then figure out what basic principles you need to tackle the problem, regardless of the field these basic principles come from.

"Closed as question is not ...[x]"


I suspect a question is closed when it has already been sufficiently answered . Keeping it open means it would keep being 'bumped' and become redundant. If you look at Quora, often a popular question will have 4 good answers and dozens of low-quality ones. better to just close the question then.

Then I wonder if Stack Overflow should add a reason for closing, "sufficiently answered," so that the editor can choose that instead of the inaccurate and incendiary "no longer relevant."

There can always be a better answer.

This is helpful for me. As someone who is old (well 40), lol, and studying to get a math degree. I often wonder what I will do with it. I already have a CS degree. I could teach, I could work to solve the unsolved math problems, I could work on compression or cryptography. I guess I still don't know what I do.

Imho, it boils down to solving problems, explaining existing phenomena, and to gain a deeper understanding of things. For example, if you suspend a rope between two anchors, empirically, it looks like a parabola, but it's actually a hyperbolic cosine. fascinating.

Having personally known two mathematicians who committed suicide because they felt they didn't amount to anything by their 30s, I wish every new mathematician would read this post.

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