On Thursday afternoon, I got off the train in San Francisco, walked for ten minutes, and arrived at Moscone West, a building of comparable size and layout to that of an airport terminal, complete with a check-in desk at the front and an elaborate network of escalators to transport mathematicians among the three 20-foot-tall floors. I’m not sure what I expected out of the Joint Mathematics Meetings, but certainly not to find myself in an alternate universe populated almost exclusively by mathematicians.
I dutifully paid my $55 graduate student registration fee and was given a bunch of souvenirs: a book (yes, a book) detailing the events of the four-day conference, another book with abstracts for all the talks, a badge, a bag, and a pen I’ll never use. I took a few minutes to assemble my badge, orient myself (in some characteristic other than 2), and peruse the list of concurrent sessions. I decided I was most interested in a special session on the arithmetic of function fields. There were many special sessions going on concurrently, so only those most interested in number theory in positive characteristic were there. Still, the session was held in a large room that could comfortably seat over 200. (By the end of the conference, this room seemed tiny.) In total, more than 30 events were taking place at the same time: mostly 30-minute talks, some hourlong talks, some 15-minute talks, some poster sessions, some panel discussions, and probably various other things. All the rooms were at least as large as the one I was in. After going to a few talks, I briefly checked out the exhibit hall, then left the mathematical castle and walked back to the train station.
Oh yes, the exhibit hall. Anyone who is anyone (which, by my own logic then, I clearly am not) had a stand there, which helped to disguise the size of the exhibit hall and employment center. Evidently, the exhibit hall was a high security area: one would be denied entrance without a badge. I guess the JMM committee has to get people to pay registration fees somehow.
I returned to Moscone on Friday shortly before 8 AM and spent most of the day attending talks, while still finding (very) ample (okay, okay, I’ll cut the stupid math jokes) time to talk to a bunch of people I hadn’t seen for months or years. On Saturday, I spent most of the morning wandering around and talk, and in the afternoon, I went to the special session on math circles for a while before catching a train home.
While I went to many interesting talks (and some not-so-interesting talks), I believe that the JMM is more of a social event than a mathematical one. Since most of the talks are only 15 or 30 minutes, it is difficult for most speakers to present interesting mathematics in a reasonable way. Some presenters spend the first few minutes blitzing through the background material in order to get to the interesting stuff (for the two audience members who could keep up with the furious pace and the beginning); others spend too much time going through the background and thus don’t have much time left for new results. Almost no one proves anything. For most of us, we just get to see what sort of mathematics is being done now, even if we go home without knowing how to do any of it.
Socially, however, the event is a success. Since so many people are there, it’s a great opportunity for us to reconnect with those we haven’t seen for years. Indeed, I had a great time talking to some old friends and teachers.
Overall, the biggest thing I got out of the conference was hope. I frequently find graduate school to be a hope-quashing experience because the stuff I learn about is so technical and not really related to problems or objects that I find particularly interesting. After a day in the office, I often wonder if I am willing to spend my life solving such problems. Surely, they’re important for the future of mathematics, and my work may patch together with that of other people in order to prove results that are genuinely interesting (in the very best of cases), but am I willing to devote my life to that? Sometimes, I think I am; other days (okay, most days) I feel I would be better off getting a teaching job at a liberal arts school, as much as that would make me feel like a failure at doing math. Or, perhaps I could leave math entirely and go into industry, or even something else entirely, like vegan outreach programs. I can’t imagine how I could live my life without math though, since math is the only thing I can even pretend to be actually good at, and experience leaves me doubtful of whether I am even capable of sustaining meaningful conversations with non-math people. (With very few exceptions, I have failed to do so on a long-term basis.) But, at the JMM, I saw various talks on actual problems that I could see myself getting excited about, solved without ultra-technical math but only down-to-earth objects that I can pick up and play with using only my bare hands and a bit of class field theory. It may not be ground-breaking mathematics, but it is mathematics that mere mortals can feel good about doing and that we can think about and make progress on. I may have to wait until I have my PhD do to really interesting mathematics again, but if I can see a faint glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel, that’s something I can work with, at least if I can survive the next two and a half years with my passion for mathematics reasonably intact.