What Goes on at a Math Conference?

I just got back from six days in San Diego, participating in the annual Joint Mathematics Meetings. Why “Joint”? Because they are jointly sponsored by the two major American mathematical organizations. I refer, of course, to the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and the Amercian Mathematical Society (AMS). (No Monty Python jokes, please.)

The Joint Meetings are one of the highlights of the mathematical calendar. It's an enormous affair, with several thousand mathematicians attending. That day in December when the book-length program arrives is an exciting one in my little corner of the world.

So what happens at a nerd convention? Lots of stuff! In one sense the Joint Meetings are really a conference of conferences. Just about every obscure dark alley in the mathematical universe is represented. I've been in this business for just over a decade, and I am still amazed by the sheer diversity of topics mathematicians study. There is the session on Automorphic Forms and Related Topics; Recent Advances in Mathematical Biology, Ecology and Epidemiology; Hyperbolic Dynamical Systems; Interactions Between Noncommutative Algebra and Algebraic Geometry; Algebraic Topology; Groups, Representations and Character Theory; Set Theory and Banach Spaces; Graph Theory; Voting Theory; Representation Theory and Nonassociative Algebras; Expanders and Ramanujan Graphs....

Wait a minute? I study Ramanujan and Expander graphs! Probably should have gone to some of those talks.

Of course, I had a good reason for not going to very many of the talks. I was there on business, dude. Top secret, I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you business. Well, okay, I can tell you a little bit about it.

We're hiring this year. That means there has to be a Search Committee. And that means there has to be a Chairperson for the committee. That's me.

So I spent much of my time down in the Employment Center interviewing candidates. I wasn't alone of course, but I do have the distinction of being the only JMU faculty member present at every one of the interviews we did. The Center is basically a big dating service where people on the market (they're easy to pick out because they're typically young and well-dressed) get introduced to institutions that may want to hire them. Probing questions, informed by the latest advances in psychology, are asked. Handwriting samples are taken and analyzed. Blood samples drawn. Mystic rites and incantations spoken. You think I'm kidding? Doubt me at your peril. Hiring is serious business. Might be working with this person for the next thirty years.

Actually, I am kidding. We, meaning me and my colleagues, tend to do a highly non-confrontational interview. We ask a lot of vague questions, and let the candidates reveal what they think is important. Sometimes you can put your poker skills to work. Like when you ask them if they would be happy moving to Harrisonburg, VA and you have to decide if they're bluffing when they express their unbridled delight at the prospect.

Looks like a grim year to be on the market. There is a book listing all of the applicants looking for jobs, and a separate book listing all of the institutions that are hiring. The former was a book. The latter was more like a magazine.

Back to cheerier topics. Those sessions I listed earlier were all sponsored by the AMS. Roughly speaking, they're the research wing of the mathematical community. Here are a few sessions run by the MAA:

College Algebra: Concepts, Data and Models; Crossing the “Bridge to Higher Mathematics”: What Works and Why; Demos and Strategies With Technology that Enhance Teaching and Learning Mathematics; Innovative and Effective Ways to Teach Linear Algebra; Using the New Technologies in Teaching Mathematics; Great Activities for an Introductory Statistics Class.

Get the idea? C.P. Snow once referred to the two cultures in modern academia. He was referring to science and the humanities. Rubbish! The real two cultures are the AMS types and the MAA types. AMS types think the job of a mathematician is to produce new mathematics. Everything else (teaching students, grading exams, the occasional committee assignment) is a distraction foisted on us by an ignorant society that for some incomprehensible reason does not see the importance of the Langlands program, or the Riemann Hypothesis, or the clever new application of Szemeredi's Lemma dreamed up by some graduate student looking for a thesis. MAA types, by contrast, roll their eyes at the myopia of thinking that the production of esoteric, unreadable dreck is the point of it all. They prefer to search for that one perfect classroom activity or teaching method that will suddenly make related rate problems comprehensible to the average calculus student. Might as well look for two like snowflakes if you ask me.

So which type am I? Actually, I like to think I have one foot planted in both cultures. Enough about me. Back to the conference.

There is also the exhibition center, where every publisher and software developer under the Sun shows off their offerings. This is a dangerous room for me. You see, I am an impulse buyer of books. Let me loose in there for ten minutes and already I see five books I just have to have. (18 Unconventional Essays on the Nature of Mathematics? How could that not have been placed on the main kiosk at Barnes and Noble?) This wouldn't be so bad but for the fact that math books tend to be rather expensive. Oh well. I guess there are worse addictions I could have.

Even here there was business to transact. I met with my editor from Oxford Univeristy Press (I just love saying that) to let him know how the big Monty Hall book was progressing (this might be a good time to mention that blogging will continue to be sporadic while I struggle to finish the first draft of that little monstrosity).

There's lots of other stuff. The bigshot talks, for example. But, let's face it, the main function of the conference is not really the promulgation of mathematics. It's the socializing. Saw all my old friends from graduate school. The gang from Kansas State. My research collaborator. Fun!

The social dynamics here are a bit interesting. You see someone walking towards you who you kind of know. They see you. Do you know them well enough to stop and get caught up? Or is nothing more than a curt “Hey!” called for? And what's the appropriate greeting? Hug? Handshake? No physical contact? And how do you get out of the conversation gracefully once the idle chit-chat runs out? Crap! Who needs this stress?

And then sometimes you're talking to someone you kind of know and another person, who knows the someone better than you do, turns up. Suddenly you're the third wheel. You're talking about your job history since the last time you saw the person three years earlier, and then this other guy comes up talking about dinner plans and which bar is best for watching the OSU-LSU game. At this point you usually just have to concede defeat, mutter about how you're late for a talk, and slink away in despair.

So, that was my week. Loads of fun, even though San Diego was actually colder and wetter than Harrisonburg for the first two days of the conference. I'm telling you, go get a PhD in math and join the party. I don't understand why everyone doesn't get into this line of work!


More like this

Now that the big ScienceBlogs software upgrade is complete, I can tell you about the big conference in Washington D.C. Lucky you! According to careercast.com, mathematicians have the most wonderful job there is. I am inclined to agree, of course. I don't understand why everyone doesn't get a…
In an opinion piece for the New York Daily News, published in July 2012, mathematician Edward Frenkel and school superintendent Robert Ross write: This Fourth of July will forever be remembered in the history of science as the day when the discovery of the Higgs boson was announced. The last…
After a lengthy trip that involved not just planes and trains, but automobiles as well, I made it back from San Francisco in one piece. Yay! The conference was a big success, both mathematically and socially. Saw lots of old friends, which is, after all, the point of the conference, and also…
York University mathematician and civil rights activist Lee Lorch died February 28, 2014 at the age of 98. A few years ago I posted on the 2007 Joint Mathematics Meetings in New Orleans Lee Lorch where Lee was awarded the Yueh-Gin Gung and Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to…

Damn. I didn't see you there.The truth, though, is that for this old guy, the faceless crowds and the interminable impenetrable talks were a bit much, and I bailed early.

It might be because of the differences in the thickness of the aforementioned books.

C'mon, punk, admit it...you're an AMS guy!

One foot planted in both cultures. Yeah, that's the ticket.

Good to see you back!

By BobbyEarle (not verified) on 13 Jan 2008 #permalink

"I refer, of course, to the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and the Amercian Mathematical Society (AMS). (No Monty Python jokes, please.)"

Darn it! And I had finally gotten around to seeing Life of Brian. (I'd heard so many bits and pieces from it that I figured I ought to see those pieces in context.)

I didn't get out there this year. No stuff on the mathematics of music theory this time out? Last time there were a couple of good talks on things like braid group actions and tritones (or something...it's been a year)

Not too many kids grow up wanting to be math PhDs. One has to wonder why there is such an overproduction of them. Is it those MAA types with their education empires? Doesn't seem like they could attract too many aimless undergrads looking for an easy ride to a good job.

By JohnnieCanuck, FCD (not verified) on 13 Jan 2008 #permalink

I am happy that you were able to go to the conference. It's not everyday...

and I have to say I am a bit impressed by "Committee. And that means there has to be a Chairperson for the committee. That's me."

that's not everyday either.

NOW get copies of EVERYONE's emails :-) don't want to get sued later...

so Jason you may or may not remember me, but I've been a fan for ... 4 years? no must be 3.

C'mon, tell us what really goes on at a maths conference. We want to hear all about the groupies, the drugs and the other decadence.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 15 Jan 2008 #permalink

Thank you, you answered the question I have been searching for which was whether or not to place keywords when blog commenting.

Yemek Tarifleri Thanks for this post â I have struggled with this as I have NO comments yet on my blog and in some ways feel badly about that (until i read your posts about this) and yet I see there is more that I can do. thankss.