by Andrew Obus

More specifically: “Talking to people about math at math conferences.” This, of course, is a very good thing to do. But it may not always come easily (at least, it does not for me). So this will be more a “question post” than an “advice post.”

Some situations are easier than others. If a speaker has just given an interesting talk, it is often natural to ask questions after the talk. Even if I don’t have specific mathematical questions about the talk, I often find it interesting to ask a question like “where did idea X come from?” If a mathematician does research very close to mine (i.e., is someone who I presume might be interested in hearing about mildly technical details of my work), it is also generally not so hard to start up a conversation. Unfortunately, as a relatively new PhD, my research focus is somewhat narrow, and most mathematicians I meet do not fit the above bill. Some mathematicians are so outgoing and charismatic that it is difficult not to get into an animated conversation with them. But, then again, many (most?) are not.

So, for those who are very comfortable meeting and chatting up other mathematicians (especially more senior mathematicians, people not in your immediate field of research, and people who do not necessarily give an impression of “approachability”), do you have tips to share? I (and the blogosphere) would like to know!

I’m very shy so I have trouble talking to people at conferences too.

One thing I do, and it seems to work a little bit, is prepare beforehand. There’s usually a list of participants and speakers on the website before a workshop, so I’ll go through the list (not necessarily thoroughly) and look on the arxiv or their websites to see what people do. Then if there’s someone whose work seems interesting, I’ll try to read their latest articles. This way I have more of a chance of understanding their talk and having something to say in conversations. I usually just pick a few to read properly since it takes me a long time to read math papers.

If people are not very famous, I think they’re usually very happy to explain their work to you, if there’s some point that you don’t understand in their article that you just read (especially if you have a printed copy with you, though I’m usually afraid this might seem a bit strange). And if you never get to speak to a person whose article you read, because they turn out to be busy or intimidating, then at least you learned something I guess.

Personally, I’m usually way too shy to approach senior mathematicians deliberately, but if you talk to non-senior ones you often end up getting invited to lunch or drinks with a group that includes senior mathematicians.