How to Build a Search Engine for Mathematics

On the average summer Saturday, the mathematician Neil Sloane woke up to a crisis. “There are always crises,” he said— albeit crises of the teapot tempest variety. One Saturday over breakfast, he faced an inbox message titled “edits from outer space.” Without authorization, a contributor in France had deleted an entry in Sloane’s Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, which, like Wikipedia, is powered by volunteer contributors and editors.

The Day’s Work: Neil Sloane in his attic study, command central for the encyclopedia. He has taped to the wall an epigram from Kipling that reads “He had a theory that if a man did not stay by his work all day and most of the night he laid himself open to fever: so he ate and slept among his files.”Siobhan Roberts

But everyday, tending his encyclopedia like a garden, weeding and pruning and planting, Sloane also delights in the more pleasant surprises. On that same Saturday morning, for instance, a nice new sequence arrived. This specimen was governed by a rule that, as Sloane explained with signature bouncy exuberance, “gives you a list of numbers, only 16 numbers, and the biggest is 999,999,000,000. Six nines and six zeroes. Which is pretty amazing! Out of the blue we end up with this number.”

And indeed, it was a blue-sky day that Saturday at Sloane’s house in Highland Park, New Jersey, with perfect poufs of clouds and cicadas singing as temperatures neared their seasonal crescendo, … 82, 85, 86, 90, 94, 95. Sloane lives in a library as much as a house (crossed with a curiosity cabinet of ephemera), bookshelves insulating every room, with ring theory and number theory climbing the staircase from the second floor to his attic study. The attic is command central for the encyclopedia, which is a curated database and search engine of over 250,000 sequences, which interconnect with the world in any number of ways.

Search the keyword “cloud,” for instance, and you get sequence A136281:

Among the references you find

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus4 min readPsychology
The Moral Importance of Understanding Consciousness
Debating whether other beings are conscious can sometimes feel like an unimportant academic exercise. But it’s not. The conclusion we reach determines how we treat animals—our livestock, our research subjects, and our neighbors in cities and other pl
Nautilus5 min read
If ET Calls, Think Twice About Answering: Why some say searching for ET is best done quietly.
Valencia, Spain, Oct. 6, 2006. After four long days, the 57th International Astronautical Congress draws to a close, and two prominent members of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Permanent Committee decide to resign in protest. One
Nautilus18 min read
The Hidden Sexism of How We Think About Risk: If men take more risks than women, it’s not because of biology.
My eldest son has long been irresistibly drawn to danger. At 6 months old he rolled across the entire expanse of the living room in order to more closely inspect the drill that his father—forgivably assuming that five yards was a safe distance to pla