Careful what you wish for…

So around two months ago, as the novel coronavirus was just breaking in the Western media, I wrote a post bemoaning the culture of carbon-intensive academic travel. Funny — here we are, barely a quarter of the way into the year, and every conference in sight (including those I had planned to attend) is either cancelled or postponed for the foreseeable future. Let me say for the record: this is not what I had in mind. Sorry, everyone. Still, it’s hard not to feel some awe about the fact that air pollution over China has been dramatically reduced over the past weeks, and that the canals of Venice are shimmering their crystalline Adriatic blue thanks to the lack of boat traffic. My goodness, what happens when we all just stop for a bit?

But more importantly, what are the consequences for mathematics? ; ) While some are predicting that all of the at-home time we have in store will lead to another baby boom, knowing this audience I am going to predict… A MATH BOOM! Let’s face it, there is perhaps no sector of the population more suited to social distancing than mathematicians. Avoidance of public gathering is basically our lifeblood. There’s a reason some of our most renowned and productive research stations are isolated deep within the Black Forest, or in the middle of the Canadian Rockies. Unlike Ariel, we don’t want to be where the people are, because people have a well-known habit of messing with my concentration. This lockdown, we will be getting busy at home reading the papers in that special pile on our desk that only seems to grow in an ordinary semester, finishing proofs of tricky technical lemmas, and polishing up our pre-prints. I would bet on an observable uptick in arXiv uploads resulting from this whole situation, at least for us, the tribe of the portable research lab, pencil and notebook.

Disclaimer #1: Contrary to popular stereotype, mathematics is very much a social and collaborative activity, and there is no reason to believe that isolation is a beneficial precondition for its pursuit.

On the other hand, many of us are busy gearing up to face the bugbear we’ve steadfastly avoided for years — online teaching. After participating in a few trainings about (insert commercial video-conferencing service), I have to say it’s honestly better than I thought it would be, and even the dinosaurs of the department seem to be taking to it pretty well. It seems at least the basic task of communicating course material to students will be achieved at a reasonable level, though I’m still a bit skeptical of the substitute systems for evaluation and feedback on coursework. I’m concerned that the extra distance and technological hurdles will prevent students from taking the opportunities to talk one-on-one with their instructors, and also that instructors may fall into patterns that reduce their levels of availability. Then again, there may be some students that find the modes of electronic communication less intimidating than, say, showing up to office hours. Plus, blah blah millennials blah blah digital natives blah, right?

Disclaimer #2: I know there are many people out there (workers of many stations that do not have the luxury of working remotely, and healthcare workers in particular) for whom this pandemic is no frivolous affair. I wish them health and safety, and I hope my levity does not offend them.

While educators are making the online transition for our courses, it’s a little perplexing that more conferences aren’t doing the same. There are likely others, but I only know of one conference which was planned to be in-person and is making the switch to virtual (and it’s run by hardworking graduate students, on top of it all). I think this is great for at least three reasons. First, as early-career mathematicians, the ceasing of all conference activity for a long period could be injurious to our employment prospects, if indeed there are any jobs left when all the coronavirus dust has settled. Second, this will be a good excuse to have social contact, feel more normal, and less alone. Talk of virtually reviving the graduate student colloquium in my department has come up on these grounds. Third, thinking more long-term, I think something really cool could come out of this. The conference organizers are giving speakers the option to record presentations to upload, and such presentations, if well prepared, could be a real asset to people’s research profiles.

Think of having on your webpage not just a vague one or two paragraph description of your research plus links to papers, but also a 20-minute accessible video presentation on your work. This could take forms much more creative than your typical recording of a chalk talk at a conference, and really open up the world of math research — both amongst ourselves and to outsiders. I realize this is not a radically new idea: the promise of The Internet 2.0 was basically that we were all supposed to become content creators. As is often the case, academicians lag behind culture; but the video conference is a great excuse to think hard about how to produce good expository media about one’s own research.

I imagine this not as a way to supplant conference talks or research papers, but to supplement. The culture of academic publishing is such that research papers read dry and obscure to those outside the subfield, and (as a senior researcher and journal editor recently told me) there are (some) good reasons for this. But very often this style is a tool for exclusion. I am sure I am not alone in having had the experience of a professor handing me a paper or telling me to go read one as a way to make me buzz off. They don’t expect you to come back, and often they are right.

Lucid, informal, and big-picture explaining is usually reserved for talks, but on the one side, we can’t always make it to everyone else’s talks, and on the other (as Andrés points out), it’s a lot of work to put together a well timed and executed talk, only to do it once. It would be nice to be able to capture all of the thought and effort that goes in for posterity. I mean, your own work is the math that you should care the most about presenting — there’s no reason that the online calculus and algebra cartels should have a monopoly on well-produced, expository math videos.

Disclaimer #3: I have no idea how to produce any such media at present, but if I figure out anything cool, I will be happy to share. There was one tip in Mahrud’s recent post, and probably Mohamed Omar knows a thing or two as well.

Much is being made about how this is online education’s big opportunity, but this might also be a kick in the pants to the channels of research dissemination. I expect it’ll be rough at first, but when this dry-run is over, we may have some hard questions to face about how we’ve been doing things. At my university, (at time of writing) we are currently on pause to regroup with classes resuming on-line next week, and the virtual conference is next weekend, so I can’t yet really make any judgements on the tenability of these digital alternatives. In the meantime, I would be interested to hear how it’s going for graduate students in other places. Is your institution handling this pandemic very differently? Did anyone’s semester/quarter just get postponed or cancelled entirely? Is anybody being forced to move? What about plans to take quals/graduate/find a job? Are international students’ visas or applications being affected? Is your advisor taking advantage of the situation to really ghost you now?

I’m sure it’s still too early to really understand what this will all mean, so in the interim I wish everyone peace and safety, and that we can all treat one another with compassion. I hope to see you at the next virtual conference.

 

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the American Mathematical Society.

Comments Guidelines: The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We review comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a commercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

Posted in Conferences, Mathematics Online, Technology & Math | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Teaching in the Time of Coronavirus, Part I

Hi all,

2020 has been a complicated year so far, and things are only going to get more complicated as the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching recently, (as I’m the instructor for a class of undergrad learning assistants) and today I’m here to share my thoughts on how our teaching methods should change as we transition to remote teaching platforms. Later this week, I’ll also share my experiences with the Zoom platform – both as a speaker, and as an audience member.

First of all, no matter what technologies you or your university plan to use, remember that not all students will have access to the internet, or even internet with sufficient quality to participate in videoconferencing technology. It’s therefore imperative that you make your lesson as accessible as possible through as many forms of media as you can. This might include:

  • posting your lecture notes online
  • making lecture slides (and posting them online)
  • recording your lecture

As a quick note on slides, I learned recently that Google Slides offers a closed captioning service that works amazingly well (much better than YouTube’s, for sure). So even if you use Beamer to make slides (as I do), I recommend porting them over to Google Slides just for the closed captioning ability.  Here’s a quick picture of how to enable it:

How to enable closed captioning on Google slides

Also, check to see what services/platforms/support your university is offering (for example, UT Austin is integrating Zoom, and I also learned that Hangouts Meet is offering free premium services as well).

Secondly, know that it’s difficult to suddenly switch to online/remote learning (especially in the middle of the semester!), and that the quality of education will suffer. But we can try to make the best of it that we can. In particular, my recommendation is to focus on engaging your students, rather than on trying to keep up with the pace of content in a normal semester.

It can be difficult to promote student engagement during a video lecture, but one thing you could try using are survey/polling tools such as Slido, Kahoot, etc. (UT Austin has a service called Instapoll). These tools can be used to engage students and to check for understanding on a basic level. However, I would recommend that you don’t assign grades/points to these assessments as again, not all students have the internet access/equipment to participate.

Other ways to engage students include using mediums outside of lecture, such as forum/discussion posts, email, etc.  These are all additional means for students to ask questions and engage with the material at their own pace.  You should encourage your students to use whichever means they prefer, and when possible, tailor your lectures to address the topics/questions that they bring up!

Teaching in the time of the coronavirus will take more time and energy than we might be used to, but in times like these, students will remember and appreciate the compassion and effort we put in!

 

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the American Mathematical Society.

Comments Guidelines: The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We review comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a commercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

Posted in Advice, Math Education, Math Teaching, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A tribute to Katherine

I have never watched Hidden Figures.

Was that a bad way to start off an article concerning the late Katherine Johnson, the NASA legend whose persistence, precision, and proclivity for mathematics sent America to space in the 1960s?

Maybe it was. Many a person still asks me if I’ve seen the films and television series that try to capture the work of mathematicians: Good Will Hunting, A Beautiful Mind, Hidden Figures, Interstellar, Numb3rs. . . . The answer is usually no. I am maybe a little behind the times when it comes to math movies, but I am far less concerned with that, at the moment, than I am with my lack of knowledge of one of the most influential mathematicians in history. Before sitting down to write this post, I knew the following about Katherine Johnson: she was a woman, she was African-American, she worked at NASA, and she was virtually unrecognized until receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and her story was told in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures. Oh, and of course the all-important fact that without her, sending American men to orbit the Earth and walk on the moon may have taken years longer than it actually did. Can I tell you about Hilbert? Yes. Can I tell you about Rudin, about Lebesgue, about Riemann? Of course. But could I tell you about this great woman who challenged the beliefs and the norm of her time? Until today, I am ashamed to admit that the answer to that question would be no.

I was raised with a conservative background, and surrounded by families who believed a woman’s primary purpose was to take care of a home. For years, I heard my parents praise the intelligence of my older brothers, especially the oldest in our family, who was overtly encouraged to take math courses none of the rest of us were, because he was apparently of mathematical mind. On the other hand, even though I usually did fairly well in my elementary math classes in high school, I was never told that I should consider the pursuit of a scientific career. When I mentioned one night at the dinner table that I wanted to major in math, I remember my father quizzically — if not astonishingly — asking me, “You like math?” Then came an obstacle I will never forget: two years of pouring as much undergraduate-level mathematics down my throat that I could to make it into a graduate program by fall 2018. In those two years, anxiety induced by my male classmates and, yes, sometimes my male professors, nearly crippled me (as a disclaimer, my male professors also encouraged me greatly: one of them became my mentor, and often went out of his way to encourage the women in the math program at my university). I thought that I was stupid and would never be as good as they were at mathematics. I can look back on that time now and see that I was clearly intelligent, possibly as intelligent as anyone in my school, perhaps just in a different way — a questioning, a persistent, a precise way.

And this is partly why my heart is drawn to the life of Katherine: she asked questions. She was precise and careful even when it hurt, even when the men around her weren’t used to being questioned by any woman, especially not by a black woman. She maintained her persistence through an era of cruel segregation, when she could only work in the same room as other black women, and still said that the level of segregation felt at NASA (then known as NACA) was not as bad as the level of segregation in the rest of her 1960s world. In spite of the lack of empathy of her surroundings, she was still brave. Still dedicated to the inexorable precision required by mathematics. Still humble. Still cognizant of the truth. Still aware of equality.

Forty years after her calculations allowed Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon and subsequently make it safely back to earth, I am thankful for Katherine’s legacy of leadership. Thankful for the role model she is for me. Thankful for the evidence that no matter a woman’s background, she can rise above the lies she may once have been told, accept herself and her intelligence, and make an impact. And lastly, thankful for the truth that Katherine stood for when she said, “I was no better than anyone else, but no one was any better than me.”

 

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the American Mathematical Society.

Comments Guidelines: The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We review comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a commercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

Posted in Diversity, Mathematicians, Social Justice | Leave a comment

A Reflection on Giving Talks

Acknowledgments: Special THANKS to Matthias Beck, Ben Braun, Pamela Harris, Max Hlavacek, Mariel Supina, Julie Vega, and the Discrete Geometry Group/The Villa at FU Berlin.

I recently came back from a research visit to the Freie Universität in Berlin where I was visiting Professor Matthias Beck and the Discrete Geometry group there.  I was invited to give a talk in their seminar and was also invited to give a talk in the Discrete and Convex Geometry Seminar at the Technische Universität.  I want to take the time to reflect on giving talks and to think about things related to preparing and presenting talks.  Note that these are just my thoughts and reflections; the things mentioned here may not apply to everyone or may not be the best approaches for different kinds of talks.

I have been in the audience for many talks in my time as a student. I have experienced some wonderful talks, a few more okay talks, and unfortunately a larger number of not-so-good talks. I believe that part of doing mathematics is also communicating it effectively (whatever that may mean). I was fortunate that during my time at the Freie Universität, Prof. Beck, graduate students, and post-docs started a “soft skills” seminar, and one of the seminar topics was on how to give a good talk. In the seminar we shared things that stood out to us at talks that we have sat through in the past. Some of these things were good and constructive, but many found “bad talks” more memorable. I’d venture to say that giving talks is quite challenging and is always an area where we can improve in.

 

Compiling some feedback I received about my talk and modifications/explanations from advice given in ([1], [2], [3], [4]), here is a list and some thoughts on things to do for a talk:

  1. Only give talks if you want to (or “have” to)
  • If you don’t have the desire to speak then you might have a negative attitude towards giving a talk and it will most likely lead to one of these “bad talks”
  • If you “have to” present a talk (e.g., master’s defense, PhD defense, course requirement, etc.), know that life continues beyond these things. Believe in yourself, you got this.
  1. PLAN, PLAN, PLAN, PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE
  • I think most of the times I have felt that my talks have not gone well is partly due to my lack of preparation.
  • You might feel better going into a talk if you feel prepared.
  • When preparing your talks keep in mind that they may look different if you are giving a seminar talk, colloquium, expository talk, research-focused talk, board talk, slide talk, etc.
  • Give a talk more than once, it will get better and better.
  • Some people understand their own research better after preparing/giving a talk; this and potential feedback may help in writing up results.
  1. Know who your audience is and where you are talking
  • In preparing your talk, it is important to know who you are speaking to in order to prepare a talk that is an appropriate level.
  • Will you be giving a board talk or slide talk? Does the room have boards accessible even if you are giving a slide talk?
  1. Be mindful of your audience/Aim to be inclusive
  • This can be interpreted in many ways and can be adapted at different moments.
  • An example that comes to mind is when using colored chalk or markers; I had an audience member at a talk who had difficulty seeing (or could not see) a certain color on the board, I quickly changed colors.
  • If a microphone is provided, please always use it. You never know who may have difficulties hearing.
  • Thank your audience and the organizers of the seminar/conference and people that invited you. It is always nice to hear speakers are happy to be speaking with the audience.
  • Another thing is not assume the gender or other identities of your audience.
  1. Do not overestimate the knowledge of your audience
  • When I gave my seminar talk, one of the audience members thanked me afterwards for defining a certain geometric object. My research is in geometric combinatorics, hers was in algebraic topology; while she uses tools from discrete geometry, not all the objects were common knowledge in her field.
  1. Tell a Story: Context, Motivation, Applications, and the Future
  • Your project/research tells a story. It is useful to keep that in mind and prepare your presentation as a guide to tell a story.
  • What is the context of your talks? What is the aim of the project?
  • Share how you became interested in the topic.
  • Share how your work has applications to other fields of mathematics, society, science, etc.
  • Share open problems or conjectures. This might get people invested in your work and you may find new collaborators!
  • Every story has an ending. Aim to have a nice finish.  This may include some of things mentioned above.
  1. Examples and Intuitive Definitions
  • Use helpful examples to illustrate definitions, special cases, or even proof ideas.
  • Avoid technical definitions, this will more than likely lead to confusion. This happened during one of my talks; the definition was long and could been expressed more straightforward with an example.
  • Try to have a unifying or guiding example. This is may be helpful and more friendly to the audience.
  • Repeatedly remind the audience of unfamiliar definitions.
  • PICTURES ARE YOUR FRIENDS!
  • Use colors to highlight or underline key points.
  • Use computations if they are illustrative of a main point.
  • Realize that people in your audience who are interested in details can look at your papers/preprints. Examples > Technical Proofs
  1. Board Work and Punctuation/Symbols Matter
  • Try to write as neat as possible. For me, I typically write in cursive and so I try to write in print to have it be legible for others. Also, I try really hard to write as slow/effectively so that my writing does not tilt as I write across the board.
  • Punctuation and symbols matter. There is a popular example of where commas are important: “Let’s eat grandma” and “Let’s eat, grandma.”
  • Something similar arose during one of my talks. I hyphenated a mathematical term and that led to confusion because it has different meanings when you hyphenate. Be careful.
  1. Questions and how to handle them
  • Anticipate questions you may be asked.
  • Encourage questions, this keeps people engaged and you can gauge whether people are following your talk.
  • If there is a time constraint, you can also ask that people save their questions to the end.
  • You might have an audience that does not have any questions during the talk, that is okay. You may want to ask the audience questions in return.
  • When asked a question, acknowledge the person asking the question by walking in their direction and repeat the question for the rest of the audience who might have missed it.
  • You might have an audience that actively (or excessively) asks questions. This shows interest, so don’t be deterred.  At times this can be a bit challenging when questions are asked during talks.  Feel free to answer them or save them for after the talk. You are in charge.
  • Find a way to comfortably say “I don’t know the answer to your question.” Prof. Beck likes something along the lines of, “this is an interesting question, and I’d be happy to explore it—I don’t think I know the answer”.
  1. Time
  • Feel free to ask an organizer to let you know or give you a sign when you have a certain amount of time left.
  • Know where the clock in the room is or have a watch.
  • Try not to exceed your allotted time. If you exceed your time it shows that you may have been unprepared. Also, people might have to be somewhere right after your talk. Let’s aim to respect people’s time.
  1. Give credit where credit is due
  • Thank your co-authors/collaborators.
  • Give references to other people’s work.
  • Cite theorems, authors, and the year of the result. Mention references if possible. This also helps others seek out the relevant works if they are interested and it helps people put your work into context
  • Give yourself credit. Tell people what work is yours! You’ve done great research, why not tell people it’s yours?
  1. BE YOUR AUTHENTIC SELF
  • Only YOU really know what this truly means!
  • Don’t belittle your own work/results or downplay your knowledge. You are an expert! (this is something I struggle with all the time)
  • Personalize your presentation. For some people this looks like showing humor, pictures, quotes, anecdotes, etc.
  • Wear clothes and shoes you are comfortable with.
  • Show enthusiasm for your work, in your own special way.
  • People will reciprocate your energy.
  • You are a rock star!

Further Reading – Other Resources for Presentations: Handouts and Links

References:

[1] Devadoss, Satyan L. “Planning Ahead for the Joint Meetings: Giving Good Talks.” Notices of the AMS, Vol. 66, no. 10, pp. 1647-1651.

[2] Gallian, Joseph A. “Advice on Giving a Good PowerPoint Presentation.” Math Horizons, vol. 13, no. 4, 2006, pp. 25–27.

[3] Kyra, Bryna. “Giving a Talk.” Notices of the AMS. Vol. 60, no. 2, pp. 242-244.

[4] McCarthy, John E. “How to Give a Good Colloquium” Canadian Mathematical Society NOTES, Vol. 31, no. 5, pp. 3-4.

 

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the American Mathematical Society.

Comments Guidelines: The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We review comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a commercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

Posted in Advice, Grad School, Grad student life, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

To be or not to be there: Conferencing in the age of flygskam

I didn’t go to the joint meetings (JMM) this year. This is despite the following good reasons I had to go:

  1.  I’m in my fifth year, applying for jobs, and this is the time when you’re supposed to get out there and spread your name.
  2.  I’ve been a few times before and actually kinda enjoy the spectacle of the “world’s largest gathering of mathematicians.”
  3.  Flights to Denver were mega cheap, even as of like two weeks ago.

I even resisted some light pressure from peers and professors by staying put, and given the low airfare and reliable sources of on-campus support for academic travel, the trip would have cost me next-to-nothing. So why not?

A large chunk of the academic apparatus is set up to encourage you to travel. There are many grants available from many organizations to attend conferences, and travel support for attendees is one of the major budget items for many conference organizers. Many jobs include travel allowances, or require travel to present at conferences as part of the job description. Departments like mine seem to have sizable budgets for the express purpose of covering the travel expenses (and honorariums) of invited speakers who seem quite willing to travel many miles to spread their gospel. Travel is part of the job it seems – both a perk and a responsibility for the academic mathematician. Insofar as I can tell, there are a few source causes of the fact of academic travel, which I guess are obvious, but are worth recounting for what I want to say.

The first reason is personal. By disseminating your knowledge through the unique performative medium of a live-action talk, your work penetrates into mathematical culture and you become better-known to the community. You can also build your network by meeting folks with common interests in person, and perhaps sharing a drink or a bite. This can lead to collaboration, the production of new mathematics, and further opportunities to disseminate it, which I’m told also leads to jobs with greater prestige and pay. Briefly, geographic mobility begets social mobility.

The second reason is institutional. Imagine you already have a position of great prestige and pay. What cause do you have to get off your butt and go preach to the unwashed mathematical masses? Well, besides all of the personal incentives, your employer wants you to go out there because your renown is ultimately their renown. An institution accrues and maintains prestige by the the fact that its members are invited to speaking engagements, so they will want to make the mechanics of academic travel as easy as possible for you. The actual (as in non-rhetorical) you may have witnessed this system in action whenever a professor cancels class because they are out of town, or when you have been excused from your duties for same.

The last reason is similar, though more deeply cultural. Academia is replaying a decades-old fantasy which I think is common to many sectors of society: that the upper-classes are the jet-setters. Frequent travel is an emblem of status, and the other modes of academic life, namely those which demand contact with the immediate community, are subordinate to the higher purpose of missionary work. The work that requires travel, by its resource-intensive nature, must be limited to those of rarefied talent and ability. And while scarcity is the origin of this regard, in the present age of commodified luxury and full capitalization of earthly resources, it has become the norm – now you have to travel just to keep up with the Joneses. The gross domestic product thanks you.

A small perversion of this fantasy, it is no wonder that our community so celebrates the myth of Paul Erdös, the mathematician whose life was an amphetamine-fueled itinerant rampage of collaboration. From Erdös’ claim that mathematics was set back commensurately by his one-month abstinence from stimulants, one might also suppose that a refusal to travel could be injurious to mathematical progress. What self-respecting mathematician would abnegate their responsibility to speedily delivery the bounties of their enterprise by such refusal?

So here’s my real question. As highly educated people, we know that air travel is a particularly energy-intensive form of transportation. The emissions-per-passenger produced by a single transatlantic flight yields more CO2 than the average citizen of many countries produces in a year. Can we continue to justify our privilege of air travel for the sacred purpose of scientific progress when scientific progress also tells us that we, as a planet, cannot all afford to travel by air? Can we expect the peoples and nations of the world to take the scientific community seriously on climate change if we are not making strenuous efforts to reshape our own behaviors in accordance?

Don’t get me wrong: I love a good conference as much as the next person. I’ve had the good fortune of visiting places I would never have been able to afford or justify if not for academic travel. I’ve met wonderful people and been blessed to share a room or even a conversation with many mathematicians I greatly admire. I know there are experiences enabled by conference-going which have no substitute, and collaboration over video chat may never quite be the same as working at the same chalkboard. The expense of academic travel does bear value, yet I still don’t know if things have to be exactly the way they are.

It’s true, aviation only accounts for about two percent of all carbon emissions.  But this is complicated by the fact that the particular type of high-altitude emissions from airplanes can be more dangerous in the short term. Also, in the US, two-thirds of air travel is accounted for by the twelve percent of the population that takes six or more round-trip flights per year — the “frequent flyers.” I’m certain many academics are among this class. Do we need to stop flying? Probably not entirely, but I feel some hypocrisy knowing that we would be in real trouble if everyone started flying as much as we do. I felt this sort of guilt before I learned the Swedes had a name for it: flygskam, or “flight shame.” As soon as I learned this, I felt the rush of relief that comes with learning there are other people out there like you, and that there’s a name for you, probably like how X-Men (I assume the term is gender-inclusive) feel when Dr. X taps them and gives them context and purpose. Needless to say, now I’m devoted to spreading awareness of the term.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably confess that I attended an AMS sectional meeting in Hawaii last year, and I have to say it was great. But I feel complicated about this privilege. This meeting was very well attended, and I’m sure organizers bank on the appeal of a meeting in Hawaii, but the decision to hold it there is demonstrably not good for the planet when compared to alternatives. As Denver is relatively centrally located, maybe JMM should be there every year? Or if we really want to go for it, we could campaign for the construction of a carbon-neutral/negative conference center at the geographic/population center of the US (near the Nebraska-Kansas border, or somewhere in central Missouri, or somewhere else depending on how you measure), with connecting high-speed rail, to be used for all national scientific conferences.

There are also advocates of the video-conferencing approach. We know it has limitations, but if university courses can be conducted online and at massive scale with the assurance of comparable student outcomes, I don’t see why a video conferencing solution couldn’t be appropriate for some purposes. I think part of the solution here could be purely technical. Humans have been organizing traditional conferences for decades so the mechanics are both familiar and highly-developed, while video conferencing is still (in my experience) often clumsy and frustrating. If someone would design a slick and reliable platform for organizing video conferences, I could see this becoming a thing. Imagine one portal with all the conference abstracts, schedule, relevant chatrooms, etc., and then you could easily enter and leave sessions at your leisure… say, if I don’t get a job due to my lack of conference attendance, maybe I could start this business…

One study found that CO2 emissions due to travel for the purpose of presenting scientific papers accounted for only 0.003 % of the annual total, somewhere between the transportation emissions of Geneva and Barcelona. This sounds maybe not that bad. But I think what sets the climate crisis apart from other challenges is that
it requires action on all fronts. We won’t achieve our goals on reducing carbon emissions by singling out individual sectors that need reform. We need to create a culture which considers the impact of all of our personal and professional activities on the environment, and as scientists, high priests of this secular era, we are responsible for leading the cultural shift. If we aren’t going to stop flying to conferences (and we aren’t, I guess) we need to start thinking of ways to offset this activity. We need climate-consciousness to be baked into the process of conference organizing. I don’t know of any math conferences that are explicitly trying to address their environmental impacts, but I would like to.

To be clear, I’m not calling for any sort of a heroic abandonment of all air travel by the scientific community or advocating the use of sanctimonious hashtags (see #istayontheground). I’m sure I will fly again for a conference, and probably even use a paper cup or two for coffee when I have forgotten my reusable mug. I just want to point out that the path of minimizing the consequences of our own actions is too tempting for a community that should be taking leadership, and that this path is made even easier by the fact that individualistic resource consumption and accumulation is still de rigeur in this country in general. Non-conformity might initially require a little bit of courage, but I think it’ll be a bit easier for the rest of society, and result in less political strife, if scientists act first.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the American Mathematical Society.

Comments Guidelines: The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We review comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a commercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment