I’ve known about the “P versus NP problem” in computer science for a few years. It sits right at the intersection (which I love) of weird math, technology, and philosophy. So when a new “proof” of the conjecture bubbled up into the news, I leapt at the opportunity to write a story about it for Technology Review.
The question I was curious to answer to was: What does “P vs NP” mean for the rest of us?
If it were proven one way or another—a very unlikely prospect—how would it affect the daily business of computing, if at all? I assumed that this was an “easy” angle to take. Boy was I wrong. They don’t call it “complexity theory” for nothing, after all. But while the technical details could choke a Vulcan, the distinctions between the various “species” of computational problems (e.g., “P,” “NP,” “NP-complete,” etc.) can seem quite intuitive at first. That’s what’s so intriguing about P-vs-NP: gobbledygook like this can actually map to very layman-friendly concepts, like playing Sudoku or arranging the seating assignments for a wedding reception.
And there’s the danger, of course. I’m used to trusting my own nose for an intuitive analogy. But when I finished my draft—and even after one of my sources vetted it for accuracy—my science-writer “Spidey sense” was still subtly tingling. Thank god Scott Aaronson was willing to double-check it, because he uncovered half a dozen subtly-wrong-but-still-just-plain-wrong characterizations of basic concepts. I corrected them, and then asked him to triple-check. He found a couple more errors. Everything worked out and my editor was pleased in the end, but it was a very valuable reminder: when feeling extra-curious about something, be extra-careful.
The bright side is that this reporting experience only makes me more eager to write about “P versus NP.” Maybe I’m a science-writing version of an adrenaline junkie: I feel like I barely made it out of this topic alive, but it’s just so damn interesting, and there’s so much more “dangerous territory” to explore and bring back the goods from, that I can’t wait to go back.
[Postscript: I forgot to mention the_ huge importance of having a good editor on this story, or any one like it. Instead of fantasizing about murdering me, Will Knight _at Tech Review whipped my sorry excuse for a news lede into shape, worked late on several drafts, and actually thanked me in the end.]