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    Wadim Zudilin and I are somewhat in disagreement on this question on Logarithms and Ratios. Wadim quotes the first faq: "MathOverflow's primary goal is for users to ask and answer research level math questions." Personally, I feel that the question seems reasonable as a research level question on the history of mathematics, if not a mathematics question per se. Hence I ask: Are such questions appropriate for MO?

    Maybe I should elaborate a tiny bit: I see three possibly answers here:

    1. History questions are not welcome in general;
    2. History questions are welcome, but the question in question (!) is not good and should be closed.
    3. History questions are welcome, and this question is a perfectly good such and should not be closed.

    I feel only marginally competent to decide between alternatives 2 and 3, but at least I don't think I am in favour of alternative 1.

    I consider the question as a historical question about terminology, not about a math problem. There are many things around maths which are of interest to mathematicians but the MO is focused on math research, isn't it? That is why I can't consider the question as a real problem.
    • CommentAuthorDougy
    • CommentTimeJun 30th 2010
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeJun 30th 2010

    Hmm, as far as I understand it, it is neither a math problem nor a question about terminology, but a request for references (to some text of yore in which differential ratios appear).

    In my opinion., we should welcome questions about the history of mathematics (and not only because I enjoy the subject very much...). Of course, were we to be flooded by such questions, then yes, I would see the point in having some strategy/policy to deflect them, for they are sort of off-topic-ish if one reads the FAQ very strictly: but reading the FAQ very strictly is a silly idea, and I would be quite surprised if such a flood was a-coming... so the objection is abstract.


    I agree that it should be community wiki, but I don't think it should be closed.

    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeJun 30th 2010 edited

    I don't understand why should it be community wiki? Phenomenologically: we have tons of questions tagged 'reference-request' and the (small) sample I've looked are are not CW. More interestingly, in principle: why should providing a correct reference not be rewarded? (Lots of very good, very highly appreciated answers in the site are essentially reduced to providing good references, even in questions which are not exactly reference requests! Points indicate useful contributions to the site, and knowing good, useful references and being nice enough to provide them when someone else needs them is an extremely valuable, useful thing)

    One could make the argument that there are possibly many different original sources where differential ratios appear. But the OP can very well select among the offered references the one which he likes best, just as it often happens that a question gets answered in several ways, all of which are correct and the corresponding OPs gets to pick the answer they like more---sometimes using criteria with which I do not always agree, for in many cases I would have picked different ones.

    I'd go for option 3. I certainly think that mathematical history questions are appropriate!
    All right, let it go. And let's see, from quality of responses, whether the question is appropriate. This would be most convincing to me.
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeJun 30th 2010

    Wadim, it often happens that very bad questions get very very good answers. I blame Joel for the most part... In any case, your evaluation algorithm might need some adjustment!

    I apply my "evaluation algorithm" to nonmath problems only! Isn't this an adjustment?

    It also happens that good questions get bad or no answers, as when there just isn't anybody around with the right knowledge and expertise. You really, really cannot conclude anything about the quality or appropriateness of the question from the answers.

    3. This isn't my favorite question ever, but it's specific and reasonable. I'd be upset if 20% of MO questions were similar to this one, but the occasional question is totally reasonable.

    Maybe this is off topic, but it seems that there is an expanding sphere of questions that people think should be community wiki. Remember that the basic idea of community wiki is that it should be for questions that have no single wrong or right answer.

    • CommentAuthorVP
    • CommentTimeJul 1st 2010

    This question strikes me as more scholarly than 90% of the questions I've looked at today. Certainly, option 3. Also, if the purpose of wikifying is to prevent "milking for points", it's certainly unnecessary here. I'd guess it would be tough to get people to seriously look at it and answer it at all, due to the paucity of expertise of this kind.


    @Ben: I think I've been pretty consistent, at least. Any question that is not directly a mathematical question should be community wiki. This includes (but is not limited to) referene requests, big-lists, soft questions, and history questions.

    I'd like to mention that my original comment to the post was "As this is not a mathematical question, I suggest to wikify it." Harald argued and I voted to close. I am not against historical questions, I'd like to see more discussing history of problems (rather than very specialised techniques which are hardly used today). Wikifying may be in several cases a natural option.

    After 20 hours the question is visited 116 times (in spite of our hot discussion on it), and... no comment. It's pretty safe to keep it as it is.

    @Harry: I don't agree with your criteria for CW-ing. Big-list and soft yes, reference requests of the sort “where can I read about …” yes, and perhaps similarly with history questions that could produce many different answers, all of which are more or less right. But not a reference request of the kind “where is the original paper proving …” or history questions with a specific answer, or a narrow range of correct answers. These should be allowed to be non-CW.

    Said in fewer words, we don't insist on CW if the question is scholarly and specific with (likely) a definite answer. Or so I think.


    For reference request, I meant "What are some good books on ___________"

    If it's a specific reference request, then it need not be CW. I agree with you.


    As long as people don't regard history & its study as "all the stuff that happened" or "some stuff I heard somewhere, filtered through present-day historicism", I don't see any problem with history-of-mathematics questions here.

    My only niggling worry is that there might not be that many people who can give good (as opposed to vague or unsourced) answers; but I've seen one or two names on MO which I recognize as taking this kind of question seriously, so maybe good answers will emerge.


    My only niggling worry is that there might not be that many people who can give good (as opposed to vague or unsourced) answers

    Indeed. But if we take such worries seriously, we would have to disallow questions on all sorts of subjects for which there is a shortage of resident experts, not just history. That is not the way to build a community.


    Harald: perhaps I underestimate the collective wisdom of our community. Glad to see Pythagoras mentioned on the "myths which have been debunked page", too.

    Harald, you've got more votes on your anti-wiki comment than the question itself. As you have authority over the author, you might suggest him to start bounty. At the end I am just curious whether an answer exists for the question...
    • CommentAuthorheinrichvw
    • CommentTimeDec 18th 2012
    Here is another test case for this abstract discussion:
    The following historic question might or might not be appropriate:
    Who was the first (before Kolmogorov) to use the triplets which we now call 'probability spaces'
    for probability? Ulam and Hausdorff come to mind but I am not sure.

    Triplets, meaning? Do you mean a set, a Sigma-algebra, and a probability measure? Or what?

    • CommentAuthorJDH
    • CommentTimeDec 18th 2012 edited

    Mariano wrote:

    it often happens that very bad questions get very very good answers. I blame Joel for the most part...

    Mariano, I apologize. But what is a person to do, when someone asks a question containing the germ of an interesting idea, and one has something interesting to say about it?

    The History of Science and Math StackExchange site ( entered private beta last October 28, 2014. Those interested in the history of mathematics may want to participate now to ensure that the proposal survives.