See here and here if you wish to know about Polymath.

I for one would love to be a part of some collaborative problem solving endeavor. Although it can be said that quite some physics research is already massively collaborative -the LHC- for example, but I am talking about some research level theoretical question. There are some issues that I thought about, and I would like to here your own:

  1. Lots of people are already working on lots of problems individually, for their thesis etc. An ideal question should be somewhere between an examination question and a thesis report for such a project to be feasible. (i.e too tough for an exam, but not big/exhaustive enough for an entire thesis)

  2. Some senior practicing physicist(s) must mentor/administer such a project. This is the only way to ensure that nonsensical things do not get accepted by some sort of crowd consensus.

  3. How is it different from physics.SE? This is where I have my greatest apprehension. Here people post their own solutions which are intended to be complete. These are then judged and voted accordingly as per their accuracy and clarity, etc. I don't see how this can be applied to physics problems, although it might be possible. For example, a Maths problem the collaborative effort usually goes like this.. people start by testing for trivial cases, trying induction, trying to reduce the problem to an easier or known one, etc. In physics, if we are to study some physical problem, we might have to make simplifications to put it into an analyzable-framework. It then reduces to using known physical laws and applying it to the specifics of the problem.

I don't know how clear I have been, I would like to know what you all think about this. I am in no position qualified to start such a project, but I would have loved to participate if such a thing existed.

Notes: from the comments

  1. Need a blog or an equivalent platform with commenting-type feature as the place to release problems to general public. Will anyone volunteer to host such a problem in his/her blog/website?

  2. phy.SE might be the best place to propose problems. I beleive a problem has to be good enough to allow different kinds of approaches so that we may learn from different insights. However, I guess some problem proposals here, even sketchy, might be a good idea to start.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ It sounds interesting but I am not sure about SE platform because it doesn't quite support discussions (which are of course absolutely necessary for collaboration). I think a moderated wiki would work best for such a thing. By the way, here's an older question with the same proposition: physics.stackexchange.com/questions/1599/… $\endgroup$
    – Marek
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 19:44
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Should this be on meta? I support the idea fully, but it's hard to imagine what an "answer" would look like to this. I'm not sure where it should go, really... $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Spencer: no, this is not a question about the site itself (I believe). And IIRC it has already been discussed on meta but I can't find the thread. $\endgroup$
    – Marek
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 20:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Marek good point. Still, I'm not sure what an "accepted answer" would be. I want to reiterate, though, that this is a very good idea. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 20:35
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Spencer: true, there's no right answer here. That means that this should in fact be made community wiki. $\endgroup$
    – Marek
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 20:46
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ +1 A polymath (or polyphysics?) project needs a blog and/or wiki. The SE platform just won't work for it. But asking what polymath projects would be good for physics is indeed a great SE question. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Spencer @Marek However it is formulated, this will be read as a suggestion to make Polyphysics on this site, that's why I moved it to meta. $\endgroup$
    – user68
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ @mbq: fine. Actually, while writing my answer I also realized this is better suited for meta than the main site. $\endgroup$
    – Marek
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ Ok. So I guess to begin we might simply imitate the PM model. There, the commenting feature of blogs are used to discuss the problems and solve them. Once done, or in the intermediary stage, the wiki is updated which elaborates the solution reached in a presentable format. I guess physics.SE is the best place to propose questions then... $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 23, 2011 at 0:54

2 Answers 2


Well, first I have to say that I love the idea. I like problem solving and it seems that it has basically died out around here recently. But few months ago there were some neat problems going around that I liked thinking about and it could be great if we could revive that.

So, we just have few problems to solve:

How to organize stuff? How will we decide what to work on?

I suggest everybody just propose some problem in this thread and let the voting sort it out. Then we will start working on it in the separate question.

How hard should it be?

For starters I would suggest something relatively simple, or at least something we know should be solvable. Some nice problem from mechanics, thermodynamics, etc. If it works, we can move on to genuine research.

How to manage discussions?

  • If you followed Gower's blog then you know that discussions there are miles long. There's no way we can manage that here. Perhaps we'll be able to exploit the chat room. But I guess we can at least try to do this and see what happens.

I'll add some problem I'd like to see solved later. Can't think of anything that isn't either too easy or too hard right now :)

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That is true. I am trying to think of a doable but tough physics problem as well. But perhaps just to get our hands wet, we might start with any tough exam-level question as well just to see how things go. Something that involves a fair amount of concepts and computations? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 23, 2011 at 0:57
  • $\begingroup$ I searched the web for some potentially exciting problems that we could try solving as a community experiment. Source: iypt.org/new/data/download/problems/Problems_2011.pdf. These problems are intended for high school students, but perhaps they are open ended enough to allow for some decent amount of rigour in investigating them (?) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 24, 2011 at 11:05
  • $\begingroup$ Btw, would you be willing to set up a blog to kick this off (once we decide on a problem?) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 24, 2011 at 11:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Approximist: Yeah, I guess high school olympiad and such would make good problems for starers; I'll try to find something too. Byt the way, I was actually thinking about starting my own blog recently so this seems like a perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Or did you have a single-purpose site in mind? In that case maybe wiki would be better than blog. $\endgroup$
    – Marek
    Commented Feb 24, 2011 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Marek: Please, go ahead and start the page but be sure to inform us about it :) Greets $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 24, 2011 at 22:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Marek your blog would be good. I also found some university level tough questions here: ortvay.elte.hu/main.html. This is for university students so has some tougher problems that look good. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 25, 2011 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Approximist: all right, I'm doing it. But I have no experience with blogs so I welcome any suggestions. For one thing, I'll definitely need TeX. What are the options then? wordpress, blogspot, ...? And which of them is best? Not sure where I should begin but this place is probably not good to discuss these matters. $\endgroup$
    – Marek
    Commented Feb 25, 2011 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Marek Awesome! In my opinion wordpress is better. You can use the default latex by using $latex [your latex code]$. If you prefer something more sophisticated luca trevisan has written a python script lucatrevisan.wordpress.com/latex-to-wordpress where you can convert your tex files to wordpress format. T Tao has some more on this on the about page of his blog. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 26, 2011 at 3:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Approximist: thanks. Default latex is too painful for articles full of math (as I've just found out). I'll see whether your other suggestions help. $\endgroup$
    – Marek
    Commented Feb 26, 2011 at 14:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Marek: As far as I know, LaTeX is the best option available. As for using a wordpress plugin, it would br acceptable, however, other option is MathJax, which is great. In that case, we can add a preview implementation for comments or posts. In that case, math tags could be processed in real time (similar to this site or math.SE). $\endgroup$
    – r_31415
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Robert: is mathjax supported across all browsers? I just tried to view this site in Chrome and got pretty broken rendering. But anyway, Approximist's script suggestion works quite well. $\endgroup$
    – Marek
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Marek: Sure, it is supported across all browsers. With respect to the broken rendering, take a look at github.com/mathjax/MathJax/issues#issue/65 (I posted the images in the last comment, February 11). Probably is a bug to be fixed. In the mean time, you can solve it by clearing your cache. Are you using Chrome for Windows?. Still, as you say, wordpress plugin for latex should work well for this purposes. However, in my opinion, MathJax is much more powerful. $\endgroup$
    – r_31415
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 19:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Robert: nah, this is linux but I use mainly firefox and my chrome installation is probably a bit outdated so perhaps that's the reason. In any case, I like mathjax on this site and it's definitely as comfortable as it gets when it comes to TeX in browsers. So I'll consider the option of using it from wordpress too. $\endgroup$
    – Marek
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Marek: Sure, that sounds right. $\endgroup$
    – r_31415
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 22:41

Idea is great, but good idea is not enough. You need to find the appropriate questions, efficient method of collaboration and get the critical mass of brains (no idea how much is enough).

To start with, maybe it is good to ask questions on physicsSE, perhaps as community wiki for open questions. If you see that:

  • there is some interest
  • and too much discussion/reformulation is involved for the frames of SE

then it may be worth to start a blog/wiki/... Otherwise, the idea might be not as good as it seems.

Kinds of questions, which may be good (note that I am biased):

  • Short, well defined ones (e.g. quantum state engineering, wave optics). Stimuli: one of my questions (though it did not get much attention).
  • Open questions, easily to solve or simulate, but more difficult to define well (e.g. complex system - modeling human behaviour, simple models of seen phenomena). Stimuli: Is That Seat Taken? (or more), International Young Physicists' Tournament (click -> problems; there are mostly experimental and for high school, but just interesting and open, so they show how to ask potentially good questions).

Additional remarks:

  • Problems of the Physics Olympiad seems to be less profound (or rather: have less potential of being converted into something profound) than that of the Mathematical Olympiad.
  • In general, in Mathematics it is simpler to define exactly a problem.
  • In physics, there are less conjectures and more open-defined questions (i.e. when asking the right question is crucial, using realistic approximations, including/excluding phenomena in meaningful way, ...).

Personally, I would like to have the tool decentralizes - anyone can post problem, anyone up/down vote questions.


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