COLUMBUS, Ohio — A gathering of hundreds of physicists represented a perfect opportunity. They had come to this university town for an American Physical Society (APS) meeting, and so the Simons Foundation, seizing the chance to tap their collective wisdom, launched its first edit-a-thon aimed at improving the quality of physics information on Wikipedia.

The goal was relatively modest: Work on 30 or so physics pages that suffered from either a lack of content or a lack of accurate content. In all, some two dozen physicists stepped up for the three-hour editing session on a Monday afternoon in June.

Wikipedia editing is generally simple. After creating an account, users are able to go to virtually any page and begin marking up entries. A “sandbox” training area enables users to practice creating hyperlinks, citations and other page attributes without the edits going live.

A three-hour edit-a-thon would not allow time for such practice, however. Fortunately, the three group leaders — Maxwell Parsons of Harvard University, Amar Vutha of York University in Toronto, and Brandon Rodenburg of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York — were Wikipedia-savvy. Recruited through social media, an ad on the APS website and informal networking, they trained ahead of time (in exchange for the foundation covering their meeting registration fee) and made the participants feel comfortable. Wikipedia’s site also helped volunteers with online tutorials. Perhaps the most useful resource was “The Wikipedia Adventure,” which covered the basics of editing pages.

Facilitating the event was Lane Rasberry, a prominent editor of Wikipedia pages. He is also “Wikipedian in residence” at *Consumer Reports*, which began formally contributing to articles and organizing tutorials for Wikipedia in 2012. For the day’s editing*, *Rasberry created special access for participants to get around Wikipedia’s restriction of no more than six accounts from a single IP address. Also keeping the edit-a-thon moving was a build-your-own-nachos bar — and beer.

Within 20 minutes the event was in full swing and the room was filled mostly with graduate students and postdocs, sitting at round tables that were covered with laptop computers, notepads and snack food. While some attendees worked solo, others clustered together in groups of four or five, all hunched over one laptop as they crafted a plan for editing a page they all agreed needed work. Multiple users can edit the same Wikipedia page simultaneously, so the strategy for most attendees seemed to be group discussion, followed by task delineation and, finally, editing.

A specially created Wikipedia “class page” tracked the edits. It could tally, in real time, the total number of edits made, pages edited and pages created. During the event, and in the weeks that followed, the group edited 51 existing physics pages, including Speed of Light, Quantum simulator, and Squeezed Coherent State. They also created four new ones: Quantum Feedback, Sub-Doppler Cooling, Evaporative Cooling, and, fittingly, DAMOP — which stands for the Division of Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics, the APS department that held the conference.

Rasberry says that most of the edits have “stuck.” Based on past data from articles on similarly esoteric subjects, the “stickiness” of the changes implies that the new content is good and that the editors had a strong understanding of Wikipedia guidelines. “You can conservatively and safely say,” he says, “that the content added is requested and viewed 50,000 times a month.” Not bad for subject areas many would deem inaccessible.

For Vutha, the day was certainly worthwhile. Part of what makes Wikipedia a valuable resource is that its editors, bots and the general public are always monitoring the pages. However, as Vutha puts it, “scientific articles miss out on important parts of this process … because the subject matter is so specialized that most editors don’t feel up to the task of correcting it.” Given the dense topics, they also may just not have the time, he points out: “This is exactly why I think it is important to involve more experts in the process, especially if they are qualified enough to ruthlessly edit, correct and fix articles that no one else wants to touch.”

]]>Fifteen years ago, autism genetics research was at something of an impasse. Twin and family studies suggested that the disorder had a strong genetic component. But even though geneticists believed that there were likely dozens of different mutations responsible for autism, when researchers went looking for the mutated genes that were presumably passed down from parent to child, they largely came up dry.

Michael Wigler, a geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, suspected that researchers were going about their search in the wrong way. Most autism genetics studies were being done on ‘multiplex’ families, in which more than one family member has the disorder, because those are the cases with the highest chance of having been caused by inherited mutations. But autism, in fact, appears more often in ‘simplex’ families, in which only one individual is affected, suggesting that the disorder may frequently result not from an inherited mutation but from a spontaneous, or de novo, mutation in a sperm or egg cell. “I had the hypothesis that people were failing [in their search for autism genes] because they were using the wrong tool,” Wigler says.

Together with Jonathan Sebat, then in Wigler’s lab and now at the University of California, San Diego, Wigler analyzed DNA from the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange, a gene bank consisting mostly of genetic material from multiplex autism families: a valuable dataset from many perspectives, but the opposite of what is needed to best isolate de novo mutations. Indeed, as Wigler had predicted, the simplex families the team studied from that collection had a higher proportion of de novo mutations than the multiplex families did.

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The ocean is alive, through and through, and not just with plants and animals that we can see. Every teaspoon of seawater contains millions of microorganisms that we are just beginning to understand.

Launched in July 2014, the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology (SCOPE) aims to advance our understanding of the biology, ecology and biogeochemistry of the microbial processes that dominate the global ocean. The collaboration, now composed of 16 investigators working at Station ALOHA, about 60 miles north of Oahu, Hawai’i, in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, studies an ecosystem representative of a broad swath of the North Pacific Ocean.

The ocean’s billions of microorganisms, which together compose the ocean’s microbiome, depend on one another and on the ecosystem as a whole for healthy functioning. Therefore, study of the ocean’s microbiome on site is essential. And a combination of recent technological advances is making in situ study of the ocean’s microbiome possible.

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Bruce Kleiner, a principal investigator in the Simons Collaboration on Algorithms and Geometry, was also a 2014 Simons Fellow in Mathematics. He received a B.A and Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently a professor of mathematics at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University.

“The things I’m working on now have roots in my own mathematical past and in mathematical history, but there are two or three main strands in my work,” says Kleiner. One of those “strands” involves the Ricci flow, a process in differential geometry that was famously used by Grigori Perelman to prove the Poincaré conjecture in dimension three. Kleiner received the National Academy of Sciences Award in 2013 for his work with John Lott, which provided a detailed account of Perelman’s solution to the conjecture.

Kleiner also conducts research in the field of metric geometry. There, his work is partly motivated by problems in computer science, which is “… one of the reasons I’m a part of the Simons Collaboration on Algorithms and Geometry,” says Kleiner, “and [that research] also has connections with symmetry and many other areas in mathematics.”

“I think of myself as a geometer, meaning the way I think about things is visual in nature. This kind of thinking is applicable to many different situations, including ones which don’t seem to have anything to do with geometry at all,” Kleiner says. For example, work on algorithms may be enhanced by this kind of dual analysis: an algorithm might look like a task to a computer, but one can view it differently, geometrically, considering it as something that is visual and that takes ideas from geometry, analysis of which might yield discoveries not evident before.

“The existence of [the Algorithms and Geometry] collaboration has been important to my work already… and will continue to be,” says Kleiner.

]]>*UPDATE (7/14/2015): This morning, scorers announced that the U.S. team has finished first in the International Mathematical Olympiad in Thailand.*

PITTSBURGH—When it comes to their activities outside the classroom, the students at this summer camp are not very different from other teens. Some of them are on the debate team or play the piano. Others like to swim, toss around a Frisbee, or shoot hoops. Many are obsessed with video games and “Harry Potter.” But this summer, math has brought them together. For three weeks in June, these 54 students were part of an intensive camp designed to prepare them for the International Mathematical Olympiad in Thailand, which runs from July 4 to 16.

** **Founded in 1974 to train the first U.S. team, the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program, known to participants as MOP, is one of the most selective high school math camps in the country. Students are chosen from the very top scorers in math contests including the USA Mathematical Olympiad and the Junior Mathematical Olympiad. Despite all this competition, the atmosphere of the camp is collegial and cooperative. “That’s something I tell them on day one of orientation,” MOP director Po-Shen Loh says. “The competition is over. We’re all here.”

Loh is a mathematician at Carnegie Mellon University, which is hosting the camp this year. He is also a camp alumnus. “My own history of being involved in the Mathematical Olympiad at this level is a whole bunch of serendipitous coincidences,” he says. In 1998, when he was a junior in high school, he gave a talk to his fellow campers on the last day of class. The handout he prepared, which he keeps on his website**, **says, “This is probably going to be my final lecture at MOP.” But he was wrong; the next year, he was back at the camp shortly before going to Romania to represent the U.S. at the International Mathematical Olympiad. Two years later, when the Olympiad was held in the U.S., he went to Washington, D.C., to be a tour guide for the Singapore team.

Since 2002, he has advanced from grader to camp instructor to assistant director and finally, about two years ago, to director of the program. “I like it because it’s a way of giving back to an organization and activity that I think contributed a lot to my own growth,” he says.

Although preparing for the Olympiad is MOP’s stated mission, neither contestants nor instructors see the competition as the finish line. Loh and the other instructors try not to teach techniques in isolation but to connect them with ideas that students will see later in their mathematical careers. “The focus of our program should be to recognize that we have 54 of the most impactful high school students in terms of potential, and we should help them be successful long-term,” Loh says. “That’s the goal.”

A grant from the Akamai Foundation has allowed the program to grow, enabling it to accept younger students, including some in junior high. Now the program tries to bring in 60 participants a year, about double the number from 10 years ago. But Loh sees it growing even more. “There’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of value, and I think we could scale this into a program that could help more people.”

Loh, like many “MOPpers,” credits the middle school math competition Mathcounts for his interest in math. He says programs like Mathcounts and the Olympiad help bridge the gap between the kinds of problems most kids see on their high school math homework and real math research. High school problems are supposed to take minutes, whereas a mathematician can spend years on one research problem. “The Olympiad provides a good midstep in between, where you’re expected to think about it for five hours and still not solve it,” he says. “The jump from the five-minute problem to the five-hour problem is enormous.”

The Olympiad is the pinnacle of high school math contests worldwide. Many successful mathematicians, including the Fields medalists Maryam Mirzakhani and Terence Tao, competed as students. Each participating country sends a team of up to six students who individually take a six-question test over the course of two days, with students getting 4½ hours to answer three questions each day. Problems are worth seven points each, and a country’s score is the sum of the individual team members’ scores.

Olympiad questions generally fall into four categories: algebra, geometry, number theory and combinatorics. Although knowing calculus or other higher-level math subjects can be helpful, questions are designed to require creative problem solving rather than advanced techniques. Yang Liu, a returning member of the U.S. team, remembers question five from last year’s Olympiad, which was held in South Africa:

For each positive integer

n, the Bank of Cape Town issues coins of denomination 1/n. Given a finite collection of such coins (of not necessarily different denominations) with total value at most 99 + ½, prove that it is possible to split this collection into 100 or fewer groups, such that each group has total value at most 1.

“That one took me a long time,” he says. “You just have to try a lot of random stuff, and eventually something works.” (Answers to all of last year’s problems are here.) His teammate Shyam Narayanan adds: “The main purpose of the Olympiad is not to test somebody’s knowledge, it’s to test your ability to solve problems with the knowledge you have.”

The first Olympiad, held in Romania in 1959, included only Eastern bloc countries of the cold war. But the event has grown tremendously since then: 101 teams competed in 2014. The last time the U.S. ranked first was in 1994, when all six team members got perfect scores, a feat never achieved by any other team. These days, China dominates the competition, having won about two-thirds of the Olympiads in the past 30 years, but the U.S. consistently sends one of the best teams, usually placing in the top three.

That consistency owes a great deal to MOP, where students spend much of their day figuring out how and when to apply newly learned techniques. Michael Kural, who is on this year’s U.S. team, describes these techniques as an “arsenal of weapons to use against problems.” The more weapons in your arsenal, the better your chances. “If you have a ton of techniques and each of them has a probability of working, then eventually something will work,” he says. “Probably.”

The U.S. squad has two Olympiad veterans this year: Both Allen Liu and Yang Liu competed last year. They laugh when asked if they have any sage advice for the rest of the team. “The most important thing is to remain calm and not let other things mess with your head during the test,” Allen Liu says. Easier said than done. “I was pretty excited at first, but then I realized I had a lot of work to do,” Narayanan says. “I’m under pressure.”

After three weeks of training, the six students, which include Ryan Alweiss and David Stoner, are ready for Thailand. The others, including some who might be on next year’s team, will be going home and getting on with their summer.

To cap their time together, on the last day of MOP the students got together to put on a talent show. Some of the acts — a song from *Les Mis**é**rables*, a not-quite-successful card trick — would have been at home in any high school talent show. A few, however, were unique to this environment, such as an onstage attempt by several students to write a computer program while holding a plank position on their elbows and toes. They may be some of the brightest young mathematicians in the country, but at that moment they were simply teenagers laughing together and getting ready to say goodbye to friends.

*The Simons Foundation is a supporter of the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program.*