A Venezuelan Mathematician in Paris

Pascal's adding machines at the Musee des Arts et Metiers

Summer is a complicated time for math profs. On the one hand, we have a couple of months during which we don’t have to teach, which seems like a really long, enviable vacation (my family still thinks I have the best job in the world because of this). On the other hand, this is the time when we’re supposed to do everything we haven’t been able to do as much during the school year, particularly, get research done and attend conferences. (This might be different for people at research institutions, but my guess is it’s not THAT different.) This summer, for example, my to-do list includes: submit at least one of two papers based on stuff that is pretty much finished (the writing takes a while, though), think more about a couple of new projects, read some papers, finish a grant application, and prepare for a conference talk later on and my classes in the Fall (which are both new and challenging). So, how does one really go on vacation? I will tell you a little bit of what I’ve figured out this summer, and I encourage everyone to give other tips and suggestions for the newbies like me who are still trying to figure all of this out.

I have found that it’s hard to even go anywhere. There is so much to do (like in my list above) that you can’t always justify taking a trip just for fun. I do go home once every summer, for at least a week, but I am Venezuelan and we are genetically programmed to really miss our moms. I have found that the best way to travel anywhere else is to go to conferences. It is also relatively guilt free because you’re still traveling for work. I have already talked about my time in CAARMS, which allowed me to see a little bit of LA. My next conference will be in Bilbao, Spain (expect a blog post about that later on), and I have one more in Palo Alto. The Bilbao conference gets me to Europe. I thought, since I have family in Paris, why not go a couple of weeks early, visit family, and then go to the conference? I know a lot of math people that travel this way. Now this latter option is not as guilt free, because I have now spent a couple of weeks not doing very much (other than tourism) and feel awful about it. I have been able (for the most part) to keep up with work-related email, and work on my conference talk, but I haven’t really thought about math (other than explaining to other people what I do, which, by the way, I find really impresses French people, much more so than Venezuelan or American people).

Possibly the hardest thing is just being able to take time off. Mathematicians are good at what they do because they are basically workaholics. We think about math all the time. This is not to say that when we look at something we see equations flying out or numbers covering everything. We also don’t see graphs of functions for everything that moves, and neither do other scientists, no offense to Abtruse Goose. That just happens in the movies. Oh, and also most of us aren’t crazy, either. We do see math everywhere, and sometimes we do think about our research or math problems when we are doing something else. Ivars Peterson has a beautiful blog, The Mathematical Tourist, that basically explores how much of mathematics one can see in the world if one is really looking. Here in Paris, I went to the Musee des Arts et Metiers, specifically because it’s a science and technology museum and I really do enjoy that sort of thing. As in the photo above suggests, I was particularly impressed by their collection of old “calculators”. The picture shows adding machines created by Pascal. A friend just went to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and said it was the “differential geometer’s mecca”.

At a Project NExT panel someone said (unfortunately I don’t remember who it was) that even on vacation he got research done by waking up early in the morning before his family was up. This way, he made sure he did a couple of hours of research every day and also spent quality time with his family. I think this is a genius idea, and would work for me if I was a morning person. Maybe I just need to become a morning person. I’ve been thinking that a way to modify this idea would be to just work after everyone goes to bed, and spend a couple of hours doing research then. The problem is that the end of the day is tough for working because you’re probably tired (especially if you walk all day and then have wine with dinner, like I did in Paris). One other alternative, which is what I actually have done, is to just stay in a couple of days and work as much as you can then. This is how I have managed to work on my talk a tiny bit, which needs to get done especially since it’s the first time since college that I give a talk in Spanish. I don’t count this as research or math, because I’m basically just translating a talk I’ve given many times before, but I guess it counts as work.

One final thought is that everyone needs to take a break every once in a while, no matter the level of workaholism. It’s not only good for the spirit, but I find it’s also good for your brain. I have discovered that sometimes I need to leave the problems I’m working on and when I come back I have much better ideas. I also feel like I have more “brain energy” than I do when I’ve been obsessing over these problems. I have one more week before two back-to-back conferences, which I will be spending in Milan (I have a childhood friend there), so I’ve decided to take it easy and just focus on my talk and on staying in touch with Bates and the math department.

Hope everyone out there is enjoying their summer, either by taking a real break, going to a conference, getting a lot of research done, or all of the above!

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6 Responses to A Venezuelan Mathematician in Paris

  1. Avatar Kim says:

    I totally remember this feeling you describe of feeling an obligation to work all the time, or at least be thinking about work. As a mathematician who left for industry, the differences are really interesting: while there is no longer the long vacations and the freedom to work (besides teaching) when and wherever you want, it is an amazing feeling to leave work at 6:30 pm and be really done for the day; same for the weekends; I find myself enjoying that free time much more.

  2. Avatar Łukasz Surzycki says:

    I have similar plans for my vacation: preparing articel about my work for mathematical journal together with polishing the proofs 🙂 and enjoying free mind – free time to recharge “brain energy” which I mean fresh look for the problems I work on during
    my usual course

    have a good time Adriana

  3. Avatar Michelle says:

    One thing about traveling so much for conferences: I travel infrequently for true vacations. This is tough in a relationship where one partner doesn’t get the conference travel. I know my husband would like to take more vacation-type travel. But I got home after a busy May-June schedule, and am thrilled at the idea that I don’t have to leave home again until September.

    I’m not sure quite how to strike this balance in a relationship. I keep thinking “next year, I won’t have so much conference travel, and we’ll go someplace fun then.” But then two or three more conferences come up, and I just can’t bear the thought of another trip on top of all that travel.

    I do love to travel, but going somewhere every moth gets exhausting. And I really like where I live… I’d like to spend some time here!

    • Avatar Chris says:

      I concur with your sentiment. My partner just got flustered with me for backing out of a conference in Madrid (a vacation for him, but work for me) in favor of staying home and getting some work done.

      I love summers here. Campus is beautiful and *quiet*. My office is mine again. And the days are long, so that there is still time to slow down, relax and enjoy summer even after a day of work.

  4. Avatar Cassie says:

    What is this “vacation” thing you speak of? (Says the grad student.)

    Although I have to say, using math to get where you want to go is the best way to do it. People are always amazed when I tell them where I’ve gotten to go (often basically for free) because of what I study. Case in point: Costa Rica. And I have a colleague spending 6 weeks in Europe this summer because of two different workshops. And another in New Zealand/Australia. It is something I don’t think I expected when I started school…

  5. Avatar Greg Coxson says:

    Imagine having a non-academic job and still trying to fit in conferences, writing papers and getting projects done. Travel overseas would be nice, but quite a luxury for someone in my shoes. Anyway, that is a challenge I struggle with. Thank you for your notes — “vicarious” is a key word here.
    Greg Coxson

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