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Theorems for sale: an online auctioneer offers math amateurs a backdoor to prestige.

In April, an eBay auction offered math and science aficionados a rare opportunity: to link their names, albeit through 5 degrees of separation, with one of the most famous mathematicians Mathematicians by letter: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z See also
  • Requested mathematicians articles
  • (by country, etc.)
  • List of physicists
External links
 of the 20th century. Trumpeting the title "Decrease your Erdos number!" the auction presented bidders with the chance to collaborate on a research project with the seller, who had collaborated with someone who had collaborated with someone who had collaborated with someone who had collaborated with Paul Erdos, the Hungarian mathematical prodigy who died in 1996.

Erdos was an eccentric, legendary figure with no fixed address. He worked with mathematicians all over the globe, coauthoring papers with more than 500 other researchers during his lifetime. Just as some film buffs calculate movie actors' fame by measuring their degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, mathematicians calculate their "Erdos numbers." A mathematician who has published a paper with Erdos has an Erdos number of 1. A mathematician who has published a paper with someone who has published a paper with Erdos has an Erdos number of 2, and so on.

The eBay seller was William Tozier, a scientific consultant in Ann Arbor Ann Arbor, city (1990 pop. 109,592), seat of Washtenaw co., S Mich., on the Huron River; inc. 1851. It is a research and educational center, with a large number of government and industrial research and development firms, many in high-technology fields such as , Mich., whose Erdos number is 4. He launched the auction as a joke, in his words, "one morning before I'd had enough coffee." Quickly, however, the auction took on a life of its own Memory Burn A Life Of Its Own was released by Noise Kontrol in 2002. Memory Burn is made up of several high profile musicians who came together to create this special work. , sparking a vigorous debate both about the limited research opportunities available to amateur mathematicians This is a list of people whose primary vocation did not involve mathematics (or any similar discipline) yet made notable, and sometimes important, contributions to the field of mathematics. In general, they are not listed in the Mathematics Genealogy Project.  and about the ethics of selling an Erdos number.

EXCLUSION PRINCIPLE exclusion principle, physical principle enunciated by Wolfgang Pauli in 1925 stating that no two electrons in an atom can occupy the same energy state simultaneously.  Although Tozier started the auction on a whim, his offer was serious: 40 hours of his time to collaborate on a project of the winning bidder's choosing in one of Tozier's areas of expertise, which include machine learning and complex systems. If the collaboration resulted in a published research paper, which Tozier said was likely but not guaranteed, the auction winner would earn an Erdos number of 5.

Tozier, who is interested in social networks, started the auction as an informal experiment about how news spreads through social and professional circles. He was curious to see how quickly gossip about the auction would spread and whether anyone would actually take him up on his unusual offer.

"It's hard to get real data about social networks without infringing on people's privacy, so I thought it would be interesting to set this out there as something between a joke and an experiment," he says. "I like to approach things in this 'let's see what happens' mode."

Tozier told only four friends about the auction, asking them to pass on the news to their own friends. He also posted a link to the auction on his Weblog See blog and Web log.

(World-Wide Web) weblog - (Commonly "blog") Any kind of diary published on the World-Wide Web, usually written by an individual (a "blogger") but also by corporate bodies.
 ( 04/index.html). From there, Tozier says, news about the auction made its way quickly through the "blogosphere The total universe of blogs. See blog. ," and soon, the mathematics, computer science, and other technical communities were buzzing with the story. Mathematician Jerry Grossman of Oakland University History
Oakland University was created in 1957 when Matilda Dodge Wilson, widow of automobile magnate John Francis Dodge, and her second husband Alfred Wilson donated their 1,500-acre estate to Michigan State University, including Meadow Brook Hall, Sunset Terrace and all the
 in Rochester, Mich., who maintains the official Web site for the Erdos number project, told Tozier that visits to the site skyrocketed after the auction started.

When Tozier set up the auction, he had no idea who, if anyone, would respond. To his surprise, his offer of collaboration struck a chord in a wide range of individuals, including engineers, teachers, and businesspeople, who had ideas for research projects but felt excluded from the mathematical community. During the 10 days of the auction, Tozier heard from more than 100 would-be researchers, whose frustration echoed complaints Tozier had been hearing for more than a decade. "Through my years as a researcher and corporate consultant, I've met lots of extraordinarily smart people who love math, read about it in books, try things out, and explore, but because they're not members of the [mathematics] community, they can't put their observations back into the pool of collective knowledge," he says. "They do what is arguably ar·gu·a·ble  
1. Open to argument: an arguable question, still unresolved.

2. That can be argued plausibly; defensible in argument: three arguable points of law.
 research but can't share it with people who would take it further or put it in perspective."

As a result, he adds, "most of these people cannot do anything at all about their ideas, and they cannot apply their skills."

It's hard for people outside of academia to share their ideas with mathematicians, agrees Ronald Graham For the diplomat, see Sir Ronald Graham

Ronald Lewis Graham (born October 31, 1935) is a mathematician credited by the American Mathematical Society with being "one of the principal architects of the rapid development worldwide of discrete mathematics in recent
, a mathematician at the University of California, San Diego UCSD is consistently ranked among the top ten public universities for undergraduate education in the United States by U.S. News & World Report.[3] It is a Public Ivy. [1] For graduate studies, most of UCSD's Ph.D.  who has an Erdos number of 1. "I've run into people who are serious researchers in other areas but have some math idea and don't know Don't know (DK, DKed)

"Don't know the trade." A Street expression used whenever one party lacks knowledge of a trade or receives conflicting instructions from the other party.
 what to do," he adds.

Mathematicians get so many letters from crackpots claiming to have proved amazing a·maze  
v. a·mazed, a·maz·ing, a·maz·es
1. To affect with great wonder; astonish. See Synonyms at surprise.

2. Obsolete To bewilder; perplex.

 theorems This is a list of theorems, by Wikipedia page. See also
  • list of fundamental theorems
  • list of lemmas
  • list of conjectures
  • list of inequalities
  • list of mathematical proofs
  • list of misnamed theorems
  • Existence theorem
, Graham says, that it would take too much time to separate the wheat from the chaff chaff

1. chaffed hay; called also chop.

2. the winnowings from a threshing, consisting of awns, husks, glumes and other relatively indigestible materials.

Spurred by the emotional impact the auction was creating, Tozier decided to devote some of its proceeds to launch a free online community to promote scientific collaboration among laymen and mathematically trained professionals outside of academia. The idea, he says, is to create a forum in which individuals can post research proposals, find collaborators, review each other's work, and publish research findings. He is now talking to Noun 1. talking to - a lengthy rebuke; "a good lecture was my father's idea of discipline"; "the teacher gave him a talking to"
lecture, speech

rebuke, reprehension, reprimand, reproof, reproval - an act or expression of criticism and censure; "he had to
 nonprofit and governmental groups about the best way to put together such a community.

A MOCKERY OF THE SYSTEM Although his auction officially ended on April 30, Tozier has no money in hand, because there was a saboteur among the bidders. In the auction's final seconds, an anonymous bidder placed a winning bid of $1,031, then announced on a Weblog that had been chronicling the auction ( _your_erdos_number.html) that he had no intention of paying the money or collaborating with Tozier.

The winner--who later identified himself as Jose Burillo, a mathematician at the Polytechnic University
  • Polytechnic University located in Brooklyn, NY
  • The Hong Kong Polytechnic University located in Kowloon, Hong Kong
  • Institute of technology is an institution focused on technology
 of Barcelona in Spain with an Erdos number of 3--wrote that he had placed the winning bid "to stop the mockery this person is doing of the paper/journal system" and called the auction a "travesty."

At first, Burillo says, he found the idea of the auction merely funny. But as the auction progressed and individuals appeared to be placing serious and substantial bids, Burillo started to fear that the prospect of buying an Erdos number might be an unhealthy temptation for a mathematician trying to climb the academic ladder. "Someone could be desperate enough for an Erdos number of 5 to pay for it," he says.

An Erdos number of 5 isn't that big of a deal: More than 66,000 mathematicians can claim the honor. Yet in some parts of the world, Burillo says, Erdos numbers are taken very seriously, and mathematicians post their number prominently on their resumes. Even where that is not the case, he says, the number of papers a mathematician or scientist publishes can play a critical role in his or her advancement.

"I don't want to see the system by which I am going to be evaluated tarnished by the possibility that people can buy or sell their coauthorships," Burillo says. "Joint papers have to be worked and earned, not sold, auctioned, or bought."

Tozier retorts that the current system is far from perfect. It's common in many sciences, he says, for an eminent researcher to be listed as the coauthor of a paper researched and written by, say, a graduate student working in the researcher's lab. Sometimes, he says, the researcher doesn't even bother to read the paper. By contrast, Tozier says, he was offering a genuine collaboration to the winner of the auction.

While Burillo is motivated by idealism, Tozier says, his defense of the status quo [Latin, The existing state of things at any given date.] Status quo ante bellum means the state of things before the war. The status quo to be preserved by a preliminary injunction is the last actual, peaceable, uncontested status which preceded the pending controversy.  "summarizes everything self-centered and exclusionary about the academic life."

Burillo isn't the first to fear that Erdos numbers could be exploited. Graham says that when Erdos died, mathematicians worried that researchers might start frivolously adding Erdos' name to papers he had nothing to do with, thereby netting themselves an Erdos number of 1.

So far, those fears appear to have been unfounded, Graham says. Erdos name is still appearing on new papers, but they are generally written by mathematicians who collaborated with Erdos years ago and are only now getting around to writing about their work.

"Erdos has slowed down a bit, but death didn't completely stop him," Graham says.

Erdos would have been amused a·muse  
tr.v. a·mused, a·mus·ing, a·mus·es
1. To occupy in an agreeable, pleasing, or entertaining fashion.

 by the fuss over the eBay auction, Graham guesses. "He thought the whole idea of Erdos numbers was kind of goofy Goofy

bumbling, awkward dog; originally named Dippy Dawg. [Comics: “Mickey Mouse” in Horn, 492]

See : Awkwardness

Meanwhile, Burillo's maneuver may have succeeded in dealing only a temporary setback to the Erdos number auction. Tozier is considering re-running the auction on eBay. He also intends to follow through on his idea of creating a collaborative community of amateur mathematicians, which would be open to the unsuccessful bidders. "I very seriously intend to bring those people together," he says.
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Author:Klarreich, Erica
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 12, 2004
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