MCA 2013: On attending the first Mathematical Congress of the Americas

The auditorium for plenary talks, right before the inaugural and awards ceremony.

The auditorium for plenary talks, right before the inaugural and awards ceremony.

A few weeks ago I attended my last conference of the summer, the Mathematical Congress of the Americas in Guanajuato, Mexico. This is the first conference of its kind, and brought together about one thousand mathematicians from around the globe (but concentrated mostly in the Americas, of course). For me personally, it was a great opportunity to see some great talks, meet new people, and catch up with old friends, all in the beautiful setting of Guanajuato. In this post, I will share my experiences at this great conference.

Math people enjoying the view from the Pipila monument. From left to right: Aurora Olivieri, Pedro Berrizbeitia, Teresa Crick, and Maria Chara. The MCA backpacks are kind of awesome, right?

Math people enjoying the view from the Pipila monument. From left to right: Aurora Olivieri, Pedro Berrizbeitia, Teresa Krick, and Maria Chara. The MCA backpacks are kind of awesome, right?

The conference was structured like many other large conferences: one plenary talk and a few simultaneous invited talks each morning, then special sessions in the afternoons, with shorter talks. The goal, it seems, is to have a conference that meets about every four years, like the ICM, but that focuses on highlighting the research and successes of mathematicians living and working in the Americas. The first day, there was even an award ceremony, and there were awards for young mathematicians (within twelve years of getting their Ph.D.) and lifetime achievement awards.  I think that for this reason there must have been a lot of pressure to make this first one a success, and from what I could gather it certainly was. I actually think this is one of the best organized conferences I’ve ever been to. The talks ran smoothly, there was good public transportation from the hotels to the conference center and the other conference venues, and there was an army of staff members (made up of students in math and tourism, mostly) who were very friendly and willing to help with anything. We also had the best conference bags (I know that’s not important, but it doesn’t hurt)!

A bad picture of the MCA award winners, who are gathered on the left of the stage. From left to right: Andres Navas, Alf Onshuus, Victor Rivero, and Eduardo Teixeira. I took this picture before Miguel Walsh go this award, but he also got the MCA prize (and was by far the youngest in the group, having only finished his Ph.D. last year.

A bad picture of the MCA award winners, who are gathered on the left of the stage. From left to right: Andres Navas, Alf Onshuus, Victor Rivero, and Eduardo Teixeira. I took this picture before Miguel Walsh got his award, but he also got the MCA prize (and was by far the youngest in the group, having only finished his Ph.D. last year).

The only thing that I thought could have been a bit better was the scheduling of the special sessions. For example, I was speaking in the session on Finite Fields and their Applications, which was held Thursday and Friday afternoon, simultaneously as the Number Theory session and a few others I would have liked to look into. On the other  hand, Monday and Tuesday afternoon I found it hard to find full sessions to attend. I did end up seeing some really cool talks in sessions that I wouldn’t have attended if I had other, more number theoretic, options, so it wasn’t all bad. I think they were trying to concentrate topics in one half of the week in case people could not attend the full conference, which I think is a nice thought, but for the rest of us who were there the whole week it was actually not as helpful. I guess you can’t please everyone!

Manjul Bhargava

Manjul Bhargava

The plenary talks were in many different fields, so I wasn’t always able to follow them, but I still attended them. My absolute favorite, though, was Manjul Bhargava, and not just because it was the only number theory one. Well, OK, that did help, but he was one of the few people who attempted to introduce the basic concepts and ideas, before going into the details of the amazing results he has gotten. I think that was missing from a lot of the talks, which is why I got lost quickly. The only other talk where I felt someone was making an effort to help me understand, and which was not in my field, was the Ingrid Daubechies plenary. Early and late morning of every day, there were three simultaneous invited lectures, some of which were also really great. The MCA award winners got to give talks on their research too, but there were also other great speakers in many different fields. My favorite, and not because he was my Ph.D. advisor, was Fernando Rodriguez-Villegas. But it was exactly the same thing, he tried to explain the context and the basics, he even had some cool analogies, and then he finished with the more formal details (although it was never too formal or detailed). All of the invited talks, by the way, were videotaped and uploaded to the MCA youtube channel.

Guanajuato from above. The large white building behind the yellow church is actually the University of Guanajuato.

Guanajuato from above. The large white building behind the yellow church is the University of Guanajuato.

Another thing I liked about this conference was that they tried to organize some events outside of just the conference talks. Many of those are staples of any big conference, like the welcome cocktails the day before the conference, the banquet (which I did not attend but heard it was fun) and a public lecture (this one by Persi Diaconis, which got so crowded I couldn’t go to). There were also many excursions around town and nearby locations organized by the conference during our free afternoon and a concert in the Juarez Theater, which itself is a beauty, and the music was great (and we got free tickets as participants of the conference). I just thought it was great to have a cultural event tied to a math conference. I know many people enjoyed doing this very much (the theater was completely full). On the free afternoon I actually just walked around the city with a group of people (we didn’t join a tour, in part because they were all booked).

Teatro Juarez, before the show. The group played medieval, renaissance, and colonial music, and were called "Los Tiempos Pasados".

Teatro Juarez, before the show. The group played medieval, renaissance, and colonial music, and were called “Los Tiempos Pasados”.

This was a really great conference, and I’m very glad I was able to attend. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t been invited to talk at a special session, so I’m very grateful that I was (and I’m always grateful to be invited to talk!). I hope this becomes a recurring conference, and that one day it becomes as prestigious as the ICM or the ECM. It is possible (although it is still being debated) that the next ICM (after Seoul) will be held in Brazil, so at least maybe there will be another international meeting for mathematicians held in the Americas. We will just have to wait and see I guess!

So, dear readers, do you have any stories or experiences from the MCA you would like to share? Do you think you would be interested in attending one in the future? Any experiences in international conferences that you would like to share? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

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