Saturday I attended the afternoon portion of the Seminaire Bourbaki at the Institut Henri Poincare in Paris. The Seminaire Bourbaki was started in 1948 by the Association des collaborateurs de Nicolas Bourbaki. The collaborative (who published many texts under the pseudonym Nicolas Bourbaki) was founded by Henri Cartan, Claude Chevalley, Jean Coulomb, Jean Delsarte, Jean Dieudonné, Charles Ehresmann, René de Possel, Szolem Mandelbrojt, and André Weil in 1935. The seminars (which happen a few times a year) feature speakers talking about new developments in mathematics, and rarely do they speak about their own results or work. Rather, it is a chance for exposition on a current and “hot” topic. I was excited to be in Paris exactly when this was happening, so I decided to check it out.

A while ago, someone told me that it was not such a great place to go for math talks because it was more of a “see and be seen” kind of social gathering. Everyone who’s anyone, and that sort of thing. On wikipedia it’s described as “a barometer of mathematical achievement, fashion, and reputation”. Mathematically, I was quite lost, so I kind of enjoyed being at a “fashionable” math event.

I wish I had gotten more out of the talks, but the first one, by Joel Riou, was in French (which I handle well enough to order food and get around) and the second one, by Joel Kamnitzer, involved a lot of category theory (which is not my cup of tea, even in English). I was sad to miss the first talk, by Pierre Cartier, since it was probably the most appropriate for my areas of interest. Something interesting happens when you’re really lost. You notice things that otherwise might not register. For example, I noticed I was one of two women in a crowd of about 40+ people. From the picture on the left you can also see that the median age is probably about 50. Also, it’s apparently OK to fall asleep at the Seminaire Bourbaki. The last one I don’t care about at all, but for a “current events in math”, fashionable event, I wish there had been more young people and women.

Probably the most exciting thing that happened to me was getting to meet and shake hands with Jean Pierre Serre. The funny thing is I had no idea it was him until afterwards. Of course, when you say “Hi, my name is So-and-so”, and the other person says “Hello” and shakes your hand, but omits their name, you know you should know who that is. After he had left, the person who made the introduction said “You know, that’s Serre”. So I was star-struck retroactively, so to speak. Of course, I should have known it was him, I even got a book of portraits of mathematicians as a gift recently, and he’s in it. Funnier still, after the talks I went to get pastries with a bunch of mathematicians, and then the same person who introduced me to Serre asks someone who the older guy we were just talking to was, and they respond “Oh, that’s Pierre Cartier, you know like in the divisor?”, to which he replies excitedly “Oh, that’s THE Pierre Cartier?”. I just love how being famous in mathematics is so confusing even to mathematicians.

In the end, even though I didn’t understand much of anything, I did enjoy the chance to be there and especially to meet some famous mathematicians (even when I had no idea I was meeting them). I highly recommend trying to go, even if the talks have nothing to do with your research. I do recognize that this is not always an option for non-Parisians or non-Europeans. Worry not, my Stateside friends, because David Eisenbud and the AMS have created a seminar series in 2003, the Current Events Bulletin, which happens every year at the Joint Mathematics Meetings. The seminar is modeled after Bourbaki, but intended to be a bit more accessible and mostly features young up-and-coming mathematicians. I have attended the past few and it’s always a treat. Much like Bourbaki, the handouts contain the articles for the talks and are pretty great to have (I have kept all of mine!).

So dear readers, have you attended a Bourbaki seminar or a current events bulletin? What is your favorite “meeting a mathematician” story? Please share any thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

Hi Adriana,

Reading your account was refreshing. It seems you went to Bourbaki without any psychological preparation, so congratulations! My own feeling (based on 33 years of experience) is that it is indeed a “see and be seen” event, but only for the Paris mathematical community. In my opinion, Bourbaki mellowed a lot. I remember one of the first Bourbaki seminars that I attended (fall 1980) where Dieudonné asked a question, and another distinguished member of the group exclaimed “Dieudonné, relis tes Oeuvres Complètes!” (which is really harsh when you think about it).

About your 4th picture: talking to Cartier is Laurent Bartholdi (Goettingen); facing you, in shorts and blue shirt, is Vincent Lafforgue (CNRS, Orléans); in red sweater and with a beard , Yves Cornulier (CNRS, Orsay). Hope it helps!

Thanks for identifying the other people in my photo! And thanks so much for the anecdote. That was great!