Missing the Joint Mathematics Meetings

Next weekend, San Antonio will host the world’s largest math meeting. Thousands of mathematicians gathered in the same town? Now, that’s my kind of paradise. But David’s not attending this year, and since it would probably be weird for me to go without him, I’m staying home too. Sad we’ll miss out on the opportunity to connect with old friends.

Instead, I’ll be listening to this Kate Bush song about a man infatuated with pi and planning the party we want to host when the JMM comes to Atlanta in 2017.

Hope everyone attending the meetings this year has a great time. And good luck to those on the job market!

Dealing with disappointment

Leaving academia has brought me a great deal of relief but also a hefty dose of disappointment. I’m feeling it this week as my friends and former colleagues attend the Population Association of America 2014 Annual Meeting in Boston.  I attended my first PAA in 2005 soon after I started graduate school. I wasn’t sure what topic I wanted to study, and I didn’t know a whole lot about research. Attending session after session was overwhelming but also inspiring. I was going to be a demographer!

PAA got better every year (until last year when I knew I was leaving). I made lots of friends in the field and got to see them at this meeting. I presented posters, gave talks, organized my school’s annual PAA dinner. I was part of the community.

I noted absences. Every year a few people I remembered attending prior meetings wouldn’t be there. It made me wonder how many years on average people attend PAA. It made me wonder what happened to the people who disappeared.

I didn’t want to disappear. I didn’t want to disappoint my friends and mentors by not being there. I hoped for a nice long career in demography, one where I would be important enough to give addresses and receive career awards. I didn’t want to disappoint myself.

There’s a lot of disentangling of feelings to be done when one leaves academia. For me, that’s meant recognizing that my disappointment in not having my first career path work out doesn’t necessarily indicate that I wanted it to work out. It’s meant acknowledging that it’s hard to let go of dreams even when they lose their luster. And most importantly, I have to remind myself that I’m worthy of having new dreams even though I let one dream die. Even if I’ve disappeared.


We go where the math takes us: Banff

Last week I accompanied David to a math conference at the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) in the Canadian Rockies.  David first went there in 2007, and I’ve wanted to go back with him ever since.  My first trip did not disappoint!  Great food in the dining halls, fun conversations with mathematicians, Canadian beers, hiking, and best of all, amazing views from the cafe where I worked all week:


I hear the math was good as well!  Watch David’s talk, Rational points on curves and tropical geometry.

4 tips for non-mathematicians attending math dinners

Seminar dinner, conference dinner, generic math gathering, I want to be there.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  I love eating and drinking, and I enjoy both of these activities even more in the company of smart and interesting people.

Still, at more than one math dinner, I’ve been told, “I’m surprised you’re here.  My wife would never want to do this.”

This makes me feel strange, like some mutant math groupie (which, in truth, I am).

I understand where these other non-mathematician partners are coming from.  Mathematicians can be abrasive, and it can feel isolating when you can’t take part in the dinner conversation because you don’t understand the math.  But there’s a lot of fun to be had at these dinners, and sometimes you have to do it for your partner.  So here are my tips for having a good time…

1) Let people talk about math

Nothing is going to turn a group of people against you faster than telling them you hate the thing that they love or that they shouldn’t talk about it in your presence.  The purpose of these dinners is to encourage informal exchanges that will lead to more formal work: project ideas, thesis problems, collaborations, etc.  Don’t stand in the way of mathematics!

Keep in mind when you get together with your coworkers, you talk shop.  Shop talk is generally boring for outsiders. In the case of math conversations, this shop talk is also inaccessible.  Don’t worry.  There’s no need to try to follow the conversation if it becomes technical.

2) Retreat to your rich inner life when necessary

Chances are if you’ve been invited to a math dinner, you’re an interesting person.  People are going to ask you about that.  You’ll get to ask them about the fun things they do: travel for conferences, activities in their home city, etc.  But when the conversation turns to Hodge Decompositions or Del Pezzo surfaces, you’re going to have to amuse yourself, which you can do because you lead a rich inner life.

For me, there’s something very zen about being able to retreat into my own mind when I’m surrounded by people having a conversation that I can’t understand.  It’s like traveling in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.

If you want to please your partner, remember a few math words from the conversation and use them later out of context (e.g. Can we start calling hugs tangent bundles?).  Only do this if you’re willing to have a math conversation.  Don’t be a tease.

3) Drink

This one is probably self explanatory.  Even if you don’t drink, though, the point is to focus on aspects of the experience that you can enjoy like the food or the ambiance of the restaurant.  I once attended a conference dinner that included an extended discussion of Joe Harris’s lineage (i.e. his graduate students and the students his students advised).  I found the conversation tedious, but I would gladly listen to it again if it meant I got to eat the multi-course Chinese meal we had that night.

4) Don’t take things personally

Mathematicians spend their days saying “That can’t possibly be true!” and asking “Wait, is that true?”  If you attend enough math dinners, it’s likely that someone will question something you state as fact.  That’s their job.

This really turned me off at first.  I studied demography in graduate school, and at one point early in my relationship with my husband, I got into a discussion with one of his friends about how many people have ever lived on earth.  This was a homework problem in my demographic methods textbook that I’d solved.  I relayed my estimate but this guy countered with an estimate he and his friends had come up with based on how many people died during the Blitz in World War II.  This deeply offended me at the time.  I was the expert!  And for years afterward, I’d express hostility whenever he came up in conversation with my husband.  Then, the guy came to visit us, and I had a really great time with him.  He’s an awesome person, and I felt dumb for having disliked him for all of those years merely because he asked me to defend my position.

This last example demonstrates what I’ve gained from attending math dinners over the past eight years as a non-mathematician: a thicker skin and a fondness for intellectual arguments.  I’m a better thinker today for having spent many an evening at math dinners.