Small groups

A couple of recent posting by the famous combinatorialist Peter Cameron on his blog regarding collaboration in mathematics and research groups have reminded me of one fear I have of coming here, that I was going to refrain from commenting on, but now somehow seems apt.

In my last institution I was spoilt rotten by being part of a large and very active research group. ‘If you want to know about X, go speak to person Y or person Z’ was very much the order of the day. Now I’m in a department (possibly even a continent) in which, as far as I can tell, almost nobody works on similar or closely related matters to what I do. This cannot bode well for future work and collaborations.

It is true that in the age of the internet collaborative mathematics is much easier than it used to be and that the statistics bare this out, but this is not what I want to talk about here (though I hopefully will on a later date).

There are several aspects, indeed, benefits of having a sizable workforce all aiming for similar matters.

  • It is uneconomical to run a regular seminar (and indeed uncomfortable for any invited speakers) if there is only ever going to be a small audience.
  • Non-specialist colloquia are more often than not almost pointless as having no seminar at al (I still remember my former PhD supervisor, one of the most seniour professors in our department, being reduced to asking “so are there any applications of this?” in a colloquium simply because the subject of the talk was so far removed from our speciality).
  • On a similar note, study groups or simply working through something with others only becomes possible when there’s a certain critical mass of people all working together.
  • Of course it is much easier to collaborate with someone in person than someone who is little more than a name in an email. Talking to someone face to face quite often achieves much more than leaving things to (potentially misinterpretable) emails ever can.
  • Colleagues can and do provide other assistance with your work: they might look over a potential paper-to-be before you submit it somewhere, introducing you to new problems to work on, ask questions you hadn’t thought of etc etc etc.

Now I’m in a department (possibly even a continent) in which, as far as I can tell, almost nobody works on similar or closely related matters to what I do.

I’m scared.

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2 Responses to “Small groups”

  1. Peter Cameron Says:

    I don’t know whether this will help, but here is my experience.

    I moved from Oxford (where I had been part of a thriving group) to Queen Mary in London in 1986. It had the advantage of being a department where people were prepared to talk, and collaborate, across traditional boundaries, and the disadvantage that there was essentially no combinatorics at all. The one combinatorialist (really finite geometer) on the staff was about to take early retirement, and passed his two students on to me.

    I started up a “Combinatorics Study Group” consisting of me and the two students. We met in my office once a week, made a cup of instant coffee, and proceeded to talk about the contents of some paper I had chosen.

    This “Combinatorics Study Group” is now a large and (I think) successful seminar, attracting 30-40 people in a typical week; but more importantly, the feeling that “something is happening” has drawn many people interested in combinatorics, at all stages of their careers, to the department. We are now one of the biggest combinatorics groups in the country.

    I’ve been lucky; maybe you will be too. Best wishes!

    Peter Cameron.

  2. Maffs and the internets « From Calculus to Columbia Says:

    […] been far too long since my last post then even vaguely mentioned mathematics. While in a previous post I bemoaned my academic isolation here, in this post I would sort of like to counter this. You see, […]

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