Stack Exchange is a network of question-and-answer websites on subjects in diverse fields, with each site covering a specific topic where users’ questions and answers are input into an online reputation award process. Stack Exchange website areas include knitting, electronics, and especially programming, and users are able to upvote questions and answers that feel relevant and right for them. Brown CS faculty member John Hughes was recently ranked in the top 0.21% of Stack Exchange users in the Mathematics stack exchange for his reputation in answering questions posted online.
“When someone upvotes the answer, you get 10 magical internet points that are of no value to anyone at all, except you get a little reputation, and when someone accepts your answer, you get 15 points,” John states. “Those of us who like explaining things and showing off how much we know often answer a couple questions on this website now and then.”
Hughes explains that he would answer a few questions every morning as a way of practicing exposition and developing the skill of reading a question well enough to fully understand the users’ requests. He first became involved in the Stack Exchange network more than 10 years ago when he used the Computing stack exchange to ask questions regarding Windows for help in writing a graphics book, as well as the Electronics network to ask questions regarding characteristics of certain transistors.
“The Math stack exchange appealed to me because I used to be a mathematician, and I still love doing it, and because there was a sweet spot between the number of questions and the number of answers,” John says. “If you go and find information about your Android phone on the Android stack exchange, there are 8 billion questions and most of them never get an answer, so the math site is much better about that.”
“The thing I enjoy most is divided into two things: one is helping out someone where I think my help is actually useful to them. That’s very satisfying, knowing that someone is in need, and at the cost of asking them a few leading questions about the problem, I am able to get them on their way, and that is part of the reason why I like teaching,” John says. “The other thing I really enjoy is this business of learning to read questions carefully, learning to figure out what someone is asking and where they are confused.”
When asked about his favorite experiences with answering a question, Hughes referenced a few fond memories. There was one case where a Stack Exchange question thread resulted in him writing a joint paper about combinatorics with the user that eventually was posted to arXiv and became useful for future users.
“There are some things that aren’t worth doing financially; the free market isn’t going to make them happen. But if those are things that I like doing, I’ve gotta make them happen,” John says. “If you like going to parties, you’d better throw one now and then, and so part of public service for me is self-interest. I like talking about math with people, so I should contribute some time to that.”
Hughes believes it is valuable for faculty members to have interesting sidelights such as he’s had throughout the last decade, telling a story of Brown’s old lecture series called Twisted Paths, where faculty in STEM gave talks about the diverse path they took to be doing what they are doing currently.
“I think about my former colleague Tom Dean, who was hand-carving parts for furniture”, John says, adding that Dean became interested in selling refurbished metalworking machinery and started wondering about automatically controlling machines for this task, but did not have the necessary knowledge or money to delve into the work with these electronic parts.
“That’s when his wife Jo discovered that the local community college had affordable classes that would give him the education he needed and from there, his career as a scientist got launched,” John says. “He ended up working on some really fascinating projects at Google, working towards mapping parts of real brains to understand how they worked. So that’s a pretty twisted path: a guy who was carving table-legs ends up being a top AI researcher.”
John states that the most interesting scientists he has known have followed a very twisted path and that their former interests informed how they think about what they’re doing now.
“There’s plenty of fuel out there in the world; there just aren’t enough sparks,” John says. “So I think of public service as one of the ways of being a spark, and that’s why I do it.”
For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communications Manager Jesse C. Polhemus.