I’m attending a conference in Berkeley, CA right now, at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, lovingly dubbed MSRI (pronounced “misery”). When I first started attending conferences I felt good if I understood the first half hour of a one hour talk; that was a very rare occurence in the beginning. It was common for the speaker to lose you in the first 5-15 minutes. Maybe that’s why conferences were so tiring—seems like I spent most of the time groping to understand.
Now that I’m (somewhat) more mature as a mathematician, I’m noticing two things. First, the talks that are in my area are comprehensible. It’s deeply gratifying to know what’s going on. Second, when a professor lectures on an area that I don’t understand and am not interested in, I have no qualms about ignoring him and doing my own work. I would estimate that two thirds of a typical audience at a math conference isn’t paying attention to the front of the room.
More exciting than the talks were the fact that I got engaged in a problem I’ve been working out: a new thought on how to proceed with it and a pair of good papers to adapt to my own needs, and suddenly I’m putting all my time into making it work. I thought I solved a subproblem yesterday, and went so far as to write it up and email it to my advisor. When I revisited it the next morning, though, I caught a mistake.
Now I’m trying to see if I can make the thing work. It’s productive work, even if it doesn’t work out. I’m starting to understand how (technical gibberish alert) the K3 surfaces relate to their lattices and to their Fourier-Mukai partners (end alert). I think I may have figured out how to close the gap in the proof, but I’m a little hesitant to declare victory. In fact, I’m thinking there may be a few more wrinkles ahead. Hopefully it will come through.
In the meantime, though, I’ve got plenty to do when the speakers veer into topics that I don’t care for.