Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The proof is in the blogging? The insults as well...

It all started on Oct. 5, when Woit started a new thread titled "Navier-Stokes Equations Progress?" on his "Not Even Wrong" blog. Penny Smith, a Lehigh University mathematician, posted a paper on arXiv, that attempted to solve a famous problem. In the abstract of her paper, Smith claimed to have proven the existence of a solution to the Navier-Stokes equations. The equations describe the behavior of liquids and gases in motion, and a solution would give scientists insight into the chaotic natural phenomenon of turbulence.

The Navier-Stokes problem, that has been unsolved for more than 150 years, was designated a Millennium Prize problem by the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass. for $1 million.
People rushed to Woit's blog, excited to discuss Smith's paper. Some admirers congratulated her while cautioning each other against getting too excited until the work had been verified. But doubts about Smith's work started to emerge; then, on the morning of Oct. 8 Smith withdrew the paper from arXiv because it contained a "serious flaw".

However, serious drama had already been ignited. Some readers, physicists and mathematicians themselves, apparently had a lot to say to Smith, some reminded her that progress in math requires risks and failures, while others criticized her work. Some went so far as to even insult her personally.

The blog discussion it stirred up suggests that mathematicians must be more careful in the face of growing technology. I would just like to close this post with one of Smith's responses, that I liked, to an insult:
"Dear Truethseeker, I love doing math. I just hope people are still willing to read, referee and publish my papers. Thanks. As the example of Yau shows beware of journalists. Even well intentioned ones like mine. She just missed a point in what I said. All humans make errors –Journalists included – and the MOST important thing in life is not intellect but kindness to others".
PS Another case of massive insults and art-drama appeared recently on my friend Angelo Plessa's blog, on his "Anathena tonight" post of October 19th 2006.



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