Paris Math

Obligatory. And actually really cool.

This autumn, I seem to have fallen forward instead of back—even though I moved back to a place I have lived before, things are changing and I am working on exciting projects. However, it also feels that I have fallen on to my face.  So many things to trip over in a new job, math, and life in general.  Teaching at my new job has been great, but very time consuming during the blocks. I have also done a lot of other cool things to write about, but have not had much time for writing, hence the lack of blog posts this month. But now, since I have finally submitted my grades for the last course and I have a little free time, I can write about what’s happening at the moment—a research visit to France.

Christophe with some very delicious French food from the very French outdoor market in Rennes.

My visit started with a trip to Rennes, to speak in a seminar at the Université de Rennes.  Rennes is a lovely town and Christophe Ritzenthaler was an awesome host.  Besides the interesting math, I got to enjoy many other Breton specialties: crêpes, cider, and kouign-amann, an amazing desert that is something like a caramel roll made with flaky pastry. I was quite nervous for my talk in Rennes, mostly because I had not been able to figure out who would be in the audience so I did not have any idea where to start in my talk. I had decided to speak about an algebraic constructions of error correcting codes with nice properties, but the topic is really combines coding theory and arithmetic geometry, so it is not common that an audience has both backgrounds.  In the end, I just picked a place to start and did my best, and it was fine. However, I think that I underwhelmed the audience by giving too much background and not enough details of the construction to convey why it is exciting.  The fact is that I really want to reach most of the audience with most of my talk, so there are times when I concentrate too much on the elementary and can’t do all the things that I want to do.  Ugh.  In any case, I am convinced that there must be a better way to talk about this topic. I pledged to try something new in the next round.

Matthieu writing a curve equation on the board, referencing his MAGMA work from a… tablet computer? Wait, is that a full size computer monitor??

Next, I moved on to my longer visit, with the geometry, arithmetic, algorithms, codes and encryption (GRACE) research group at INRIA at l’École Polytechnique, headed by Daniel Augot. The group welcomed me very kindly and many people made time to talk to me, including Alain Couvreur, Ben Smith, Francoise Levy-Dit-Vehel, Julien Lavauzelle, and Matthieu Rambaud.  I gave a talk yesterday to the whole group, again about this code construction, and was again disappointed that I didn’t get to the best details.  However, several people did ask questions later on, so at least some of the following were true: a) the group was exceedingly polite, b) I left out so much detail at the end that there were many obvious questions to ask, and c) I explained enough of the ideas well enough that people felt they could ask well-formed questions.  Clearly a) and b) were true, but I sincerely hope that c) also occurred.

Daniel and Francoise outside the IHP.

After finishing my talk, I feel free and light.  Also, today was special because instead of taking the metro/train/bus to the lab in Palaiseau (the lab is really lovely, though a bit of a schlep from the center of Paris), I met Daniel and Francoise at the Institut Henri Poincaré to work for a while before heading to a seminar at L’École Normale Superiéure. I especially loved the relaxed atmosphere at the IHP.  It is basically open to the public, and has a lovely mathematical library and common areas. I also saw Cédric Villani’s closed office door there, which was fun, in the same way it must be fun for a big fan to ride by their favorite movie star’s house in a tour bus.

This is my first research trip to France and I have really loved the experience.  I would like to come back all the time—say every other month.  Of course that would be ridiculous, and it even seems strange, in a way, to ever fly so many miles the world to talk with people that you could Skype with at any moment.  Experiences like this one convince me that it is worth the trouble and natural resources, though.  For one thing, being physically with people is a big deal, especially when you are first getting to know each other.  In video chats, you only see someone for a short while, and probably almost only talk about things that are relevant to your project: all very convenient and efficient. It is a big pain to travel across the ocean, though, and it is always just slightly difficult dealing with people in real life—you have to make conversation, think about their needs, coordinate schedules, and generally make many small concessions. But I think that the work of making these little concessions is actually how people begin to invest in each other, which in turn makes it easier to talk about math. These small human interactions somehow make it a little less scary to share your potentially totally wrong math ideas.  Or perhaps I’m just trying to justify my awesome trip to France.

Thoughts on whether traveling is important for research? Suggestions on how to have a great time in Paris?  Let me know in the comments.

‘A Delicate Balance’ by Shepard Fairey, mural on the street in the 13th arrondissement.

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