Opinion 124: A Database is Worth a Thousand Mathematical Articles: An Ode to Neil Sloane's On-line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (OEIS)

By Doron Zeilberger

Written: May 22, 2012

Q: Who is the most influential mathematician of our time?
A: Neil Sloane!

True, Neil did not prove Fermat's Last Theorem, nor did he prove the Poincaré Conjecture, nevertheless, the impact of his brainchild OEIS (On-line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences) on today's (and tomorrow's!) mathematical research far surpasses that of any living mathematician.

Many mathematical articles explicitly mention how they were inspired by OEIS, but for each one that does, there are at least ten who do not mention it, not necessarily out of malice, but because they take it for granted. Currently OEIS has almost 100 times as many sequences as in the thin first edition (1973) of the "handbook", that contained "only" 2372 of them. [BTW: I hope this first edition will soon be freely available on-line. After all it has great historical value!]
[Added Feb. 7, 2013: Neil Sloane kindly agreed me to post it! part 1   part 2   part3]

While many things did change since 1973, one thing is still true today as it was then, the motto, taken from Samuel Johnson's preface to his 1755 "dictionary", that ends with

"... Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and this negative recompense has yet been granted to very few."

Neil Sloane is indeed the mathematical incarnation of Samuel Johnson (and Noah Webster), and we should be so grateful to him! One way to show our gratitude is to contribute a sequence (thereby gaining immortality, joining the ranks of Fibonacci, Lucas, Catalan, Motzkin, and Somos) or volunteer our time and become associate editors. Yet another way is to contribute money. Even a modest contribution will go much further than donating to the "established" (and fossilized) mathematical organizations, that charge an arm and a leg for their (print and on-line!) journals, while the OEIS (like wikipedia) is free to anyone with access to the internet, and has no advertizing. So let's keep it that way!

Let's wish Neil, who has recently retired from ATT Labs (formerly the mighty Bell Labs) after almost fifty years of continuous service, many more sequences, and at least 106 of them, so that he would be able to celebrate the "1M party", like he celebrated the 100K party, and this may take quite awhile, since the editorial board is becoming more and more selective.

Added Feb. 8, 2013: Watch the talk that Neil gave yesterday about the OEIS, filmed by Edinah Gnang and Brian Nakamura, and uploaded by Edinah Gnang: part 1, part 2,
Added April 16, 2013: Read the very interesting manifesto by Sara Billey and Bridget Tenner, that will appear in the Notices of the Amer. Math. Soc.

Added Feb. 3, 2019: Look at the slides from Neil Sloane's fascinating talk given at the Rutgers Experimental Mathematics Seminar on Jan. 31, 2019.

Opinions of Doron Zeilberger