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Wikiquote edit-a-thon – Saturday, May 12th, 2018

TL;DR: We’re holding a distributed Wikipedia edit-a-thon on Saturday, May 12th, 2018 from 10am to improve the visibility of women mathematicians on the Wikiquotes Mathematics page. Join in from wherever you are! Details below.

Extension and abstraction without apparent direction or purpose is fundamental to the discipline. Applicability is not the reason we work, and plenty that is not applicable contributes to the beauty and magnificence of our subject.
– Peter Rowlett, “The unplanned impact of mathematics”, Nature 475, 2011, pp. 166-169.

Trying to solve real-world problems, researchers often discover that the tools they need were developed years, decades or even centuries earlier by mathematicians with no prospect of, or care for, applicability.
– Peter Rowlett, “The unplanned impact of mathematics”, Nature 475, 2011, pp. 166-169.

There is no way to guarantee in advance what pure mathematics will later find application. We can only let the process of curiosity and abstraction take place, let mathematicians obsessively take results to their logical extremes, leaving relevance far behind, and wait to see which topics turn out to be extremely useful. If not, when the challenges of the future arrive, we won’t have the right piece of seemingly pointless mathematics to hand.
Peter Rowlett, “The unplanned impact of mathematics”, Nature 475, 2011, pp. 166-169.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have every admiration for Peter and his work; his is a thoughtful voice of reason, and it’s not at all unreasonable for the Wikiquote page on mathematics to cite his writing.

It does seem unreasonable, though, that if a single paper by Peter merits three entries in the list, that the whole of womankind, from the whole of written history, only (currently) merits four (one from Hannah Arendt, one from Iris Murdoch, and two from Simone Weil under ‘quotes that mention mathematics’.)

Incidentally, I’m aware of the gender imbalance in Quotable Maths, which I curate at my blog. Of the last 110 quotes, only 16 are from women. While that’s not as bad as the Wikiquote ratio, it’s still not good enough; I’m working to improve that.

I would imagine, but haven’t checked, that there is a corresponding disparity in the number of quotes by mathematicians of colour, disabled mathematicians and LGBTQ+ mathematicians.

We should do something about that.

This isn’t ‘Nam, of course, there are rules – sadly, we can’t just jot down a selection of Katie’s carefully-crafted quips and spam the quotes page with them. According to the discussion page:

The quote ought to be understandable outside of its original context (or the context ought to be well enough known that most people (aquainted with the subject matter) will still understand it.
The quote ought to be one of the following:

  • Known by many people.
  • Uttered by a famous person.
    NB: Both of the above need to be tempered by the context of the quote. I.e a quote need only be known by many people familiar with its subject matter.
    The quote ought to be one of the following:
  • Interesting
  • Funny
  • Rude
  • Of significance on its own
  • Of significance given its source or some additional context

There must be dozens of those, right? What do you think about finding them and coordinating an effort to redress the balance?

How do we do that?

I am not a Wikipedian, so you are at least as much of an expert in this as I am. Luckily, Katie and Peter have put together a Google Doc with the necessary details. We’ll be using this doc to coordinate real-life meet-ups and to document and discuss quotes that merit inclusion. We’ll also set up a Google Hangout for real-time coordination – please email Katie if you’d like to have the link sent to you; it will also be listed in the doc.

Editing wikis is straightforward. You don’t need to be a historian or a mathematician (although everyone is) to take part, you just have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and put some quotes in the right place. If you want to get started on the project ahead of time, it’d be helpful if you could find and add quotes to the Google doc ahead of time, so we have material to work with out of the gate.

So, I look forward to seeing you on Saturday, May 12th from 10am to help improve the Wikirepresentation of women in maths. No excuses! As Florence Nightingale herself said:

I attribute my success to this – I never gave or took any excuse.

WikiQuote: Mathematics
How to run an editathon
The Google Doc
Quotable maths at Flying Colours Maths

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