February 19, 2007

Alum Creates Math Encyclopedia on Web

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A classroom in Rhodes Hall was packed on Friday afternoon when mathematicians, physicists, engineers and other fans of the MathWorld website gathered to hear its creator, Eric Weisstein ‘90, give a talk entitled “MathWorld: Communicating Mathematics on the Internet” as part of the Center for Applied Mathematics Colloquium series.

MathWorld is a free online encyclopedia of mathematical terms, concepts and definitions. To date, it has over 12,600 pages, and is updated continually to reflect new discoveries and information. Many Cornellians, students and faculty alike consider the site an invaluable resource. What most don’t realize is that Weisstein wrote nearly every page entirely by himself.

MathWorld’s initial form was created in 1987 when Weisstein was an undergraduate physics major at Cornell. Possessed with an admirable work ethic, Weisstein typed up all of his physics and math lecture notes in Microsoft Word.

“The reason [MathWorld] exists is because it didn’t exist when I was a student, and I really, really wanted it to,” Weisstein said. “This is made for you.”

By 1991, he had amassed 82 pages of detailed, neatly typed math notes, saved as a Word document on his computer. When the first version of Netscape came out in 1994, he decided to convert his notes into a web page, titled “Eric’s Treasure Trove of Mathematics.”

“I wanted to spread the gospel of mathematics,” he said. “I had hoped to do so through my research papers, but I realized that the number of people who were seeing my website was about an order of magnitude higher than the number of people who read my papers.”

After a legal dispute, the site went back up in 2001, and has been growing steadily ever since. Today, if it were published as a book, MathWorld would be about 4,300 pages long. The site gets hundreds of thousands of page hits every day from all over the world. Google search results rank it as the number one math and science website. According to Weisstein, most people who find their way to MathWorld do so through Google: if you Google an obscure mathematical fact, MathWorld will nearly always come up as one of the top hits.

Weisstein mentioned that there are a number of other ways to navigate the MathWorld site as well, including its own internal search engine and the “Random Entry” link. Weisstein once got an e-mail from a user who relied extensively on the “Random Entry” link as a research tool.

“One time he was trying to remember a concept from linear algebra, and he couldn’t remember its name, but he knew someone must have written about it at some point. So he hit ‘Random Entry’ 800 times to see if it would come up. And he found it!” Weisstein said. “If you make the tools, people will use them.”

To Weisstein, the most important function that MathWorld serves is reaching as wide and diverse an audience as possible.

“MathWorld disseminates math knowledge to people worldwide — to teachers, students, farmers in Africa…” Weisstein said. “It shows potential scientists and mathematicians that math is fun and interesting and it’s something they can do — it’s not something they should be scared of. That’s the important thing,” he said.

While thousands of users have contributed comments and corrections to MathWorld, 99 percent of it was authored exclusively by Weisstein. When asked if he would ever consider hiring people to help him write, Weisstein was reluctant.

“This was a labor of love for me,” he said. “I love writing about it, and I think I have a different approach than a lot of textbooks I’ve read.”

Keeping the style and the level of accessibility consistent is more important to him than being able to publish more quickly and efficiently.

Catherine Elder ’08, who attended the talk, prefers MathWorld to Wikipedia.

“When I was working on a physics problem set and I couldn’t remember something that I learned in high school, I used to Google it,” she said. “A lot of the time, MathWorld or Wikipedia would come up. Recently, I noticed that the Wikipedia articles often cite MathWorld. Now, I just go straight to MathWorld.”

Throughout his talk, Weisstein was funny, entertaining and personable.

“It was nice to put a personality to the website,” Elder said. “It seemed like we could relate to each other a lot.”

A number of students and professors approached Weisstein after the talk to thank him, including one of Weisstein’s former professors, David Chernoff, astronomy.

“I thought his talk was wonderful,” Chernoff said. “He has a creative and independent spirit with a strong personal interest in learning and explicating the math and science he covers on his web site. …His approach makes it possible to gain a broad understanding of mathematical terms and ideas with a minimum of effort. It’s been extremely helpful to those of us who aren’t experts but want a better sense of the meanings and connections of various terms.”