Sorry for the long silence – at least partially this is because of the subject of this post (which in turn has lead to the below being less picturesque than promised – but I am working on it).

For the less academically inclined, I’ll explain what the point of all this is. It is common for academics to give talk to one another about their recent research. The reasons for this are basically two fold: to benefit the speaker and to benefit the audience. On the one hand many heads are better than one and by telling people what their problems are, what approach they have taken to resolving it, why this approach was a good idea etc can and usually does lead to lots of questioning of the speaker in lecture theatre itself, the bar and the curry house etc afterwards. “Have you looked at the work of X?”, “Have you tried doing this?”, “Can the techniques of theory X not be applied here?” can all lead to fruitful progress on problems being made.

On the other hand attending such a talk introduces audience members to ideas they would probably not have otherwise encountered which can benefit both them and their subject.

This may sound very speculative and indeed it is – more often than not very little comes of this, but it does often do some good. A famous example is when is when von Neumann attended a lecture of Heisenberg and in doing so developed a whole new approach to quantum mechanics (I’ll hopefully find a better link for that in time). Less famously, I have certainly encountered people who have completely changed the direction of their PhD, solely because of a question asked by someone in an audience of one of their talks. The other way round, a talk I attended back in October has so far formed the basis of two preprints, a funding application and at least one speculative “please sir, can I have a job?” email.

The upshot of all this is that whilst many conferences every year provide ample opportunity to give and attend talks, you can never attend too many (afterall, you never know what might happen). Consequently universities often invite academics from elsewhere to give regular seminars/colloquia. At least that’s how it tends to work in the UK.

Such a set-up would be completely unworkable in Colombia. First, there’s the difficult of travelling from one area of the country to another A series of colloquia at a British university will typically include in a given semester speakers from all over the country, but a large area and mountains make it difficult to do the same here (yes, there are internal flights, but it’s somehow not the same). Then there’s the number of people you could actually invite – whilst the UK has tons of Universities (well, officially 115, but even this figure can easily interpreted as larger that it seems to be) Finding academics in Colombia is much more difficult (whilst the list of Universities in Colombia seems to be of a reasonable length, many of these places are microscopically small and of course not everywhere covers every subject.

The basic upshot is that the weekly department colloquium here is not quite the sort of affair I’m used to encountering (and even occasionally delivering) in British Universities. Firstly the audience is about 75 percent students, so the level of the talks is usually much lower than most research seminars are. This is because for some of the students at a certain stage of their degree attendance is actually compulsory (indeed a register gets passed around for people to sign part way through). This does have the nice upshot that the organizer usually arranges for fruit juice (and boy what fruits they have here) and nibbles (you know the sort of thing – think doughnut and you’re in the right direction). It is also the case that almost all the speakers are internal which makes the ‘networking’ aspect of seminars difficult to accomplish, but not impossible (afterall in a place like this, so many of the staff come and only a short while later disappear again).

Anyway, the point is that I was asked to deliver the colloquium last week. It is incredibly difficult to communicate mathematics in a talk at the best of times. Coupled with the fact that much of my recent work (ie what I was trying to talk about) encroaches on low dimensional complex geometry which several of the non-students that I knew were going to be in the audience are experts in, I had to be incredibly careful in what I was going to say. I think I got away with it. Yes there was the odd question from the audience that I probably didn’t answer in a very satisfactory way, but there was at least one question about a remarkable object that I had previously only had the most fleeting of encounters with that led to at a somewhat fruitful email exchange. Overall, it went pretty well!


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