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Summary: My colleague is asking for my help in solving fundamental problem. They are having troubles on basic level, and I don't have time to guide them through it. How I can politely avoid wasting their time AND my time?


I am a computer scientist (research focused on machine learning and statistics) and where I work I have a mathematician colleague. He is a bit obsessed with millennium problems (things like P vs NP, SSP, etc.) and so far he has tried to come up with ways to solve these two problems, but his 'solutions' so far are poor at best mostly due to his ignorance on the subject.

Now, I admire the interest and tenacity he goes about these things. However, he doesn't know much about algorithm complexity, hasn't given me any indication that he has read about what approaches have been tried/used, keeps trying random stuff and asking me to check if I think his ideas are sound or to verify them, which I find annoying since it takes a lot of time to disprove him or to refute each of his attempts (specially because I don't want to be hostile, since I barely know him).

So, I'd like a polite way to either discourage him from working on these problems because I don't want to dedicate time to this (I need to read and study to enter a PhD program and I also believe he's clearly underestimating the problems) or to discourage him from asking me about it without being rude.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 21, 2021 at 22:06

8 Answers 8

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You describe pretty well in your question what you want to communicate, so use that:

Hey X, while I admire your interest and tenacity for these problems, these are very hard problems and I do not have the time to help you with this.

Simple, straightforward, you commend him for his motivation and do not comment on their skills, you give the motivation to not do this purely based on your own motives (lack of time).

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    +1, and probably you want to say something about "focusing on one particular line of research at a time" (at least as reason why you don't want to get too involved), and you should consider refusing to discuss by pointing him to experts in these sub-sub-subfields.
    – cheersmate
    Oct 20, 2021 at 9:46
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    @DiegoQueiroz there is no guarantee that your friend will not perceive this email, or any other rebuffing his request, as rude. Some people will think anything that doesn’t give them what they are asking for is rude, there’s nothing you can do about it. But, objectively speaking, nothing in the email being proposed here is rude.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 20, 2021 at 15:05
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    @DiegoQueiroz for a bit of nuance, the way Jeroen says "I do not have the time to help you with this" is good. If one instead said "I do not have the time for this," I would perceive this as rude - it suggests that the person is wasting your time by asking. It's almost as if an unspoken "time for this (nonsense)" is implied. If you go with the way Jeroen said it though, you shouldn't have issues.
    – Drake P
    Oct 20, 2021 at 17:00
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    @DiegoQueiroz If you want to soften it a little, you could point to external pressures that require you to commit your time very narrowly: "Unfortunately my commitments to my collaborators/funding sources don't leave me time to work on anything outside of my main line of research." Of course this opens the window to your colleague later on saying "Hey, now that you're done with that paper/proposal, how about we chat about P=NP?"
    – d_b
    Oct 20, 2021 at 17:34
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    @DiegoQueiroz You can escalate in firmness. I.e., "Sorry, I still don't have time for this." "As I said last time you asked, I am too busy to work on this line of work." "Please, stop asking about these problems, I've told you I do not have the time." "No." Hopefully they do not persist, but if they do, then who is it that is being rude? Not the person setting boundaries for how they spend their own time.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 20, 2021 at 20:40
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Like a lot of things, "I-statements" work well, taking any lack upon yourself, which means they aren't out there and perhaps perceived as criticism or arguing points.

You know, I've been thinking about all these problems. These are problems that the best mathematicians on the planet haven't found approaches to solve. They have fiendish subtleties or missing knowledge. They get amateurs regularly convinced they have answers, who have basic knowledge compared to that needed for a serious attempt.

I admire the effort, but I can't actually help. If your papers have rudimentary beginner errors, then they don't work, and if they don't have rudimentary beginner errors, [REMOVED SEE COMMENTS] I don't have anything like the skill or time needed to check for non-rudimentary errors. Which to be honest, they will probably turn out to have.

Half a job is no job at all, and I don't have the skill, and I don't want to make you think I could, even if I had the time.

I have to prioritise my own work, and I know how much work a good honest review takes. And you'd want reviews of approaches to problems that have defied giants. I don't have even close to that kind of time available, to track errors down or form any kind of useful opinion. I'm sorry. It's not possible, even slightly.

Pick what's useful out of that lot, and adapt it as needed, but that sort of approach overall.

If argued, you could read, and perhaps tactfully remind him, what happened with another problem of that level, Fermat's Last Theorem. World class mathematician reckoned he would have to dedicate close to a decade to master all relevant knowledge and techniques, asked other world class specialists in the field to check his work - and even then between them, they missed the errors while working on the problem.

You just don't have that level of skill or time. Be honest, say so, and tell him you won't lie to him, about that, or the time needed to check proofs to get an idea if they may work.

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    I like parts of your answer but referring to my colleague as a beginner might be interpreted as condescending, which is the exact thing I want to avoid. Still your last paragraph is also quite good and is complementary to the first answer, and for that I upvote and thank you. Oct 21, 2021 at 2:48
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    Struck out a bit of it that may help?
    – Stilez
    Oct 24, 2021 at 15:22
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From a comment:

I want to discourage him from trying to solve it while underestimating the problem or that he stops bothering me about it.

Okay, so you have something between conflicting or hazy priorities here. First, I'll recommend that you get your priorities straight, specifically: (1) you stop wasting time on it, and (2) your colleague stops wasting time on it. It would be nice if you could do both. But failing that, your top priority is to yourself; and after all, you can control your actions, but not another person's, so this is the only feasible ordering.

I'll say that I've brushed up against this kind of thing once in a while, so I know the frustration you're talking about. A few years back I had a student indeed fall into the Collatz Conjecture, despite both the textbook and myself warning him that it's been a time-waster for generations of mathematicians. He was sending me pages of gobbldeygook and asking if he was making progress (this being a community-college student who couldn't reliably prove that 2x + 6 was even for an integer x). I gave him one clear warning that he should definitely stop and focus on our classwork. As he didn't follow that advice, I basically had to wash my hands of him and simply hope for the best.

So in that regard, I suggest a like single attempt: advise your colleague that they should probably not pursue this path, because it's an overwhelmingly deep subject. Do that once, period. If you don't do that, that it's entirely possible that you'll be dragged down with your colleague's obsession.

Now, if you really can't find any way to say "I'm not doing this anymore" without sounding rude, you might consider a truthful-but-diplomatic approach, like:

I'm really busy right now, so I'm not sure when I'll have a chance to get to this. I'll put it on my tasklist and see if I can get to it after other priorities.

Then do that. If you do in fact get some free time a week or a month later, maybe look at it if you're curious. If not, so be it. If he continues to send stuff after that, prioritize appropriately. Maybe next time it takes months or a year before you have space for it.

Another thing to consider is to expect to see some single "big idea" that convinces you he's got a never-before-seen strategy that gives him a leg up that no one else has seen to date, before you spend any time on reading the body of a paper. Avoid getting lost in the weeds of details. R.J. Lipton has written on this in the past, in the context of P = NP Proofs; and some of the links there in comments to other sites are interesting, as well.

But frankly just finding some way for you to stop dealing with it should take the topmost priority.

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    I don't think my priorities were hazy, I just thought they weren't mutually exclusive. But I do see your point, I have already drafted a way to excuse myself based on the overall overwhelmingly good suggestions provided in these answers, will also send the good resources provided so that he can understand the problem a little bit better. Cheers! Oct 21, 2021 at 20:20
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From the comments you say " if I just let him waste years on this without telling him he could be using his time on more fruitful results".

So tell him exactly this. Tell him that he may spend 5 years trying to solve this problem, with possible no outcome, or he can tackle other problem with a time-span of 1-3 years. Remind him that money/grants/bursaries for young researhcer are granted on the basis of what has been done in the previous 1-3 years, so he may very well end up with nothing in his hands in 3 years, and no funding possibilities in 3 years.

Then, it is his call, not yours, to judge how they spend their time.

When you say, "I wouldn't be true to my own researcher principles if I just let him waste years on this without telling him he could be using his time on more fruitful results" I miss your point. Results are not the goal of science. The way to getting the results is science. So he may very well not get any results (and that is perfectly fine, in research in an ideal world), but the issue is that he is not doing good science, not that he will get no results.

If you do not want to cut him off completely, focus on teaching him how to fish (it will not take you much time), not in providing the fish :) .

By the third time you explain him how to find the relevant literature for his problem, he will either give up getting in touch with you or get on the right path.

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  • Very good argument, I didn't think about using money in my argument because I rationalized he thought about that. Oct 21, 2021 at 20:25
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Here are two useful questions you can ask yourself;

  1. "How would I want someone to set boundaries with me if the situation were reversed?", and
  2. "How would I approach this same situation if this were my child?"

You can never know how someone else thinks, or how they will react to a situation. But these two questions will help give you the best perspective on this situation.

Why? Because the first question will help you frame your communication compassionately and respectfully, while the second question will remind you that your goal here is not to solve their problems for them.

It's to support them and encourage them into becoming their best, all by themselves.

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  • thanks a lot for your contribution, I kind of think very similarly on what you wrote in your answer, but sometimes we lack the social skills to cmmunicate things adequately or sometimes our perception of our own skills are lacking. The answers provided here have shown me it's not that I don't have the skills, but more that it's a delicate problem and I need to be extra careful. Oct 21, 2021 at 20:23
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Adding to @Jeroen's answer, what about something like this?

I admire your tenacity at wanting to make a contribution to these problems. If you want to make a contribution in these areas, you'll need to read up on <INSERT THEORIES HERE> to get the foundation, then I recommend you start reading papers on <INSERT KEYWORDS HERE> to get a sense of what has been tried already and what theoretical results have already been proven. That will also give you a sense of any gaps in your knowledge that you will need to fill with classes or self-study. You may even need to go for a (second?) PhD. It's going to be a long and tedious road involving a ton of learning (I would expect it to take <INSERT TIMEFRAME HERE, E.G. YEARS>), but once you're fully immersed in the background theory of the problem and the work that's been done and being done on it by others, you'll be prepared to begin working to make a contribution on it yourself. That in itself will be a life-long journey, with many false starts and many thousands of hours spent learning, experimenting, and collaborating with others to (hopefully) make tiny gains, but it's worth it to be one of the <INSERT NUMBER HERE> CS researchers working to advance our collective knowledge on these problems if this is a commitment you're willing to make. But obtaining the necessary theoretical knowledge and learning from others is key to doing any kind of research, and this is especially true for a problem of this magnitude (if the colleague is a researcher consider rewording this last part as it might sound rude).

Basically treat them like a graduate student you're advising (though respectful of the fact that they're a colleague). Hopefully they will either decide to take this seriously and become a productive member of the research community working on these problems, or they'll realize how big of a commitment is involved and walk. Either way problem solved.

If the colleague ignores this advice and continues with the "hey check my proof" queries without any attempt at self-study, then I recommend @Jeroen's answer. And this approach won't work if the colleague in question is a true crank (vs. someone who is just naive about what research is).

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  • After accepting Jeroen's answer I wrote something along the lines of your answer (minus the 'insert relevant theories here', as I think he wants me to be the person responsible for those and if I cite them I'm afraid he'll want me to discuss or for me to teach them), your approach is commendable and it works very well with what Jeroen wrote, for different types of people. Many thanks! Oct 21, 2021 at 20:32
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    Happy to help! :)
    – bob
    Oct 21, 2021 at 20:34
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If your colleague is struggling with fundamental math questions, and he is very enthusiastic in dedicating their time, there is a very good solution.

Explain him once that any serious attempt at these fundamental questions will need a very formal formulation. Then refer him to Metamath, software and community. In the same email, inform him that you are short in time, and so you cannot provide any timely assistance. Be polite, Be concise. No justifications whatsoever.

After that...

So, I'd like a polite way to either discourage him from working on these problems because I don't want to dedicate time to this (I need to read and study to enter a PhD program and I also believe he's clearly underestimating the problems) or to discourage him from asking me about it without being rude.

If he asks again about these problems: "Sorry, I'm short on time to properly reply. How did you progress with Metamath?"

If he says that is having trouble expressing something with Mathmath, reply: "Sorry, I could not help you with that."

Automate these replies, in email and in conversations.

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  • It's not that he is struggling with fundamental math itself, he is a mathematician. He's just not knowledgeable about this particular field and does not appear to realize throwing random stuff at the problem is one of the worst ways to solve it. Regardless of that, great advice =) Oct 22, 2021 at 22:03
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    In Metamath, or in any other computer assisted mathematics, there is no "throwing random stuff at the problem". All and every detail must be justified, in excruciating detail. So recommending him to use automated mathematics may be a way for him to realize that. Oct 22, 2021 at 22:54
  • Yeah, I've added that to my written response, will definitely recommend it. Thanks a lot! Oct 22, 2021 at 23:09
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"I respectfully recommend that you not waste too much of your time on this problem at this stage of your career. And I am afraid that my own free time is too precious to waste on this problem. I am sorry I can't be of any help."

If you try to be more polite, you will be misinterpreted.

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