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    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 28th 2010 edited

    Actually this question is copied from here at mathoverflow.

    I was wondering how it came about ? Who proposed it over the dinner table ? Was it supposed to replace the newsgroups way of asking questions ?

    Then comes Mariano: This is the canonical question that should be asked on the meta site! See

    And the OP disagrees. I agree with Mariano, and I am also curious to find out, so I ask it in meta anyway. This could also be a discussion whether it was indeed an appropriate question for MO, and whether my impulsive action was appropriate.

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 28th 2010

    My conjecture: Everyone must have been feeling the lack of a place for asking math questions and getting good answers. And some programmer guys must have seen stackoverflow, and thus this idea might have come up.


    Anton and Scott M. wrote an introductory post at the Secret Blogging Seminar here: As far as I know it was conceived by the people around that blog.

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 28th 2010

    @Qiaochu. The secret bloggers are all here somehow or other. However, Anton the administrator etc., are slightly junior to the original secret bloggers.

    • CommentAuthorcpries
    • CommentTimeJan 28th 2010
    Rumor says it was started by Berkeley people Scott Morrison, Anton Gerashchenko, and Dave Brown (others?). The other secret bloggers found out about MO when it was still getting set up. Some have become moderators as you can figure out.

    I'm on vacation with limited internet time right now, but I'll post the story when I get home.


    @Anweshi- I think it's always safe to start a discussion of something on the meta. That's what it's here for.

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 29th 2010

    @bwebster. Thanks for the reassurance. I was feeling somewhat guilty for "hijacking" the OP's question and posting it here, though he was clearly a troll.

    • CommentAuthorbasic
    • CommentTimeJan 29th 2010
    one day there will be a wikipedia entry of "math overlfow" :-)

    Here are the main points as I remember them.

    Over the last few years, I've had several conversations with various people about how it would be great to have some sort of an online math wiki-type thing. The details would vary a fair amount; sometimes it was a (counter)examples database and sometimes a wiki for recording generalizations of results in EGA. I assume everybody has dreams about organizing and sharing everything they ever think of, or of how great it would be if everybody in your field shared a big brain like the borg, so I won't go into it.

    In early May of 2009, Dave Brown (one of the people I'd had these conversations with) sent me a link to Stack Overflow and said, "I wish there was something *exactly* like this for pure math...". I suggested that we might be able to convince the SO guys to run a sister site for us (Server Fault, the first sister site, had just come out), especially if we could find a pile of money to give them. We figured the hard part would be convincing them to host a site for us (or sell us their software), and the easy part would be finding some money, so we started putting together a case that the math community shared the right characteristics with the programmer community so a math version of SO would be successful. We watched this awesome talk by Joel Spolsky about SO, I started listening to all the SO podcasts and lurking on SO and on meta.SO, and in between chatting about math, Dave and I would chat about what the SO guys wanted and how we could best pitch to them.

    At the end of June, Fog Creek announced Stack Exchange, which made us really happy. It meant that the hard part was completely taken care of. I signed up for the SE beta and registered mathoverflow.[net|org|com]. I sent out a few emails asking various people about how to get funding for the project. In retrospect, those emails were far too salesy. One of the people I emailed was David Smyth, who recommended I talk to Dan Erman (another person I'd had those conversations with, and a student of the very well-connected David Eisenbud). I met with Dan over coffee, and I don't remember all the details of what we talked about, but as I thought about it over the next couple of days, it thoroughly changed my perception of how we should get MO off the ground. The right thing to do was to get people involved in the project and worry about finding some money later (if I'd known how long the free beta was going to be, this probably would have been even clearer). A couple of weeks later, Dave Brown, Dan Erman, and I met with Ravi Vakil over lunch to chat about MO. We had a very good chat about what would be important in getting MO to work, and compared the MO idea to various similar ideas (both successes and failures). To our great surprise, at the end of it Ravi said he would fund MO at $129/month for five years!

    On September 28, I finally got into the SE beta. I set up the site, deputized moderators Dave Brown, Dan Erman, and Scott Morrison, and sent out an email to everybody on the beta sign-up list. We had always planned on using SBS to get the word out, but we wanted to wait for a few bug fixes (one in particular) before publicizing widely. At some point, we got hit by reddit, so I recruited another moderator, Ben Webster, to help us keep MO on topic. On October 14, Scott and I announced MO on SBS, and it took off beautifully. Lots of people started providing great feedback. Pretty soon we set up meta (Andrew Stacey's recommendation), hosted by Scott. A bit later, we added jsMath support (files also hosted by Scott). Now here we are.

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2010

    @Anton. Impressive. Kudos to all your work.


    Interestingly, I think I learned about MO from some mailing list or a not-so-well-known blog which asked people who were contributing to SO to participate in some mystery beta website in mathematics.

    (For a while I thought this was an invitation on python-dev mailing list, but I think this is not true. I wonder what was that list/site?)

    Anyway, I consider myself very lucky: the email by Anton went on 9/28 and it was clear from the start that MO will work, largely because it was already well thought-of. The rest, as they say, is history.


    For the attentive, the news was leaked on SBS a week before the official announcement. I first learned that there was a site called mathoverflow from Andrew Stacey's comment here; google did the rest.


    Anton, one thing that hasn't always been clear to me is whether the funding comes from a grant that Ravi Vakil holds, or whether it comes from him personally. I gather from what you just wrote that it's his own personal donation. Maybe, wherever it's mentioned, you could use some phrase such as "personal donation" to make it crystal clear. I'm impressed by his generosity.


    @Tom: I'm pretty sure it's coming out of a grant or out of money Stanford puts at his disposal. I imagine I'll understand it much better once I actually have to go through the process of setting up billing (the beta is free). Ravi has told me that some Stanford bureaucrats are ready to handle the bills whenever they start coming.

    As I said before, I'm also impressed by his generosity. I vaguely remember him saying something along the lines of, "the $1560/year is about the cost of flying in a speaker or two; I think this project is worth that much."


    And then some!


    Yes, it's definitely worth the money! Or rather, it will be worth the money as soon as it starts costing something.

    But to return to my point -- which I don't imagine anyone disagrees with -- I just think it would be nice if it were clear who exactly the funding comes from. Clearly, whoever it is deserves credit for it, whether it's Ravi in person or a big impersonal funding body such as the NSF.

    Just want to say: thanks a lot for starting this website! I really appreciate it; it's really amazing.
    Tom, if I understand Anton correctly he's saying it's not Vakil's personal money, nor is it NSF money. It's a fund supplied to Vakil from Stanford University. I think many (?most?) universities have small funds that they make available to professors that have less strings attached than funds from big granting agencies like the NSF. My NSERC grant is much more restrictive than the grants I get from U.Victoria, for example.

    To clarify another link in the chain, I learnt about MO from the nLab. Some "Anonymous Coward" added it to the page Online Resources. Before now, I hadn't bothered to track down who added it ("Anonymous Coward" is the default name if you don't specify one). Looking at the IP, I find that it was a Berkeley IP.

    (I was particularly intrigued by it as I'd encountered SO only recently and had posted on the algebraic-topology mailing list about using the model for a review site for mathematics.)


    That was me (adding Mathoverflow to the "Online Resources" at nLab). We hadn't yet made a formal announcement, but I knew that the nLab folks would be good to have on board early, so I decided to drop a hint. Nice to hear that it worked! :-)

    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeFeb 4th 2010

    Was it announced to the general (mathematical) audience at some point? I heard about it on FreeNode's #math...


    The main (only?) "public" announcement from the moderators was the Secret Blogging Seminar post. It took off very quickly from there -- the maths blogosphere had pretty much uniformly mentioned it within a few days.

    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeFeb 4th 2010 edited
    @Mariano, I think we both heard about it from lhrrwcc, who heard about it from sek in #math-ag on efnet, who knows one of the moderators in person (David Brown, I think, but I could be mistaken).

    It has been briefly mentioned on sci.math.research: here and (more obliquely) here.