How to Build a Search Engine for Mathematics – Issue 29: Scaling

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…

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