Maths paper beats physics, with a thousand times as many authors

There has been head scratching over a paper on the Higgs boson with 5,000 authors. That is a lot, think my record is about 12 or so. Five thousand authors means a 29 page long author list, plus 4 pages of actual physics. This does look a bit silly. High energy physics is now done on an industrial scale, but all who contributed need to be credited in the conventional way — on the author list.

The Nature article linked to above suggests that the 5,154 authors is a record number. But this depends on how flexible you are prepared to be. There is a 1966 maths paper with (I estimate) about 6.5 million authors. It is called A Headache-Causing Problem by Conway, Patterson and Moscow — that is Moscow as in the city, which after a bit of Googling I estimate to have had a population of about 6.5 million in 1966. The paper is here, courtesy of Tanya Khovanova’s blog. Bit of a crushing blow to physics here, we get over 5,000 of our finest minds together to write a paper but are still soundly beaten by an eccentric mathematician in cahoots with a city.

I came across the paper in Siobhan Roberts’ Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conwaya biography of John Conway, a pure mathematician perhaps best known for inventing the Game of Life, although he has done all sorts of stuff, including co-author with a city. John Conway is an entertaining subject of a biography. He ticks pretty much every single one of the boxes for the stereotype of a pure mathematician: otherwordly, often child-like, a free spirit, sandle-wearing, bearded, bureaucracy-hating, …. All of which makes it a good read.

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