A perfect little conference


I don’t have much experiences with conference-going yet, but with that caveat I must say that the 5th Part III Return Conference at Cambridge the past few days has been a perfect little conference.

One of the most precious and underappreciated resources of the Part III is the large community of clever and excited students it brings together. Even though the most of each year’s 200 Part III students do their PhDs elsewhere around the globe, their academic paths have a tendency to cross (no doubt being similarly aligned). It is with this in mind that the Return Conferences were born to encourage recent graduates to maintain the academic and personal connections made during the Part III.

Olga, our organiser, opening the conference.

This year’s theoretical physics (HEP, GR, astro/cosmo) conference was professionally organised by Olga, a local DAMTP student. Also playing roles as advisors (and sources of encouragement) were Dr. M. Batchelor and Dr. M. Wingate. I cannot compliment Olga enough for her job planning and executing both the official and unofficial programmes: everything from accomodation to talks to recreation went very smoothly.

I am thoroughly impressed at the progress my colleages have made in diverse subfields. Talks spanned a range of topics (my apologies in advance for inaccuracies):

  • Mathematical physics: Mirror symmetry, Deformations of Lie Algebras (Cancelled due to illness. Feel better, Steffen!)
  • String theory: background geometry (spin structure), string phenomenology (ISS and large-volume scenarios), AdS/CFT, brane-tilings (er… I think that’s what it was about…)
  • Phenomenology: metastable SUSY breaking, heat kernel methods in SUSY, B-physics, Fermi gases
  • Astrophysics: Planetary formation, pulsar frontiers
  • Finance: What mathematicians do when they’re hired by hedge funds

That last talk was and especially memorable talk at the end of the conference programme. (I’m trying to convince James to write up the talk as a guest-post to this blog.)

Let me quantify what I mean by this being a `perfect little conference:’

  1. Old and new friends. Conferences encourage the human aspect of science. The return conference was especially nice because we were a group of friends playing the role of potential collaborators and academic colleagues. I am a bit embarassed to have also spoken to a few of these colleagues for the first time after never properly meeting last year — but it’s nice to leave the conference with more friends than when one arrived.
  2. Building our academic community. What I mean by the `human aspect of science’ is the idea that new ideas are generated through collaboration. The Return Conference was a reminder that we already have a broad academic network to tap.
  3. Exploring the boundaries. As mentioned above, a range of HEP/Astro/GR topics were covered. This gave us all a chance to find out what kind of related research is going on in fields that are slightly more formal or experimental than our own. One cannot understate the importance of this kind of interaction: many new ideas in science are generated at the boundaries between adjacent disciplines.
  4. A chance to ask questions. This was a rare opportunity to have a lineup of astrophysicists, phenomenologists, string theorists, and borderline mathematicians to ask the “stupid questions” that one might be embarassed to ask a faculty member. Since everyone shared a common background, you could expect to get answers pitched at the right level.
  5. Reminder of why we love physics. Probably the most salient aspect of the 3-day event was that it reminded me of why I do physics: because it’s fun. We had a great time discussing whatever topics we thought were interesting—mostly physics sprinkled with a bit of gossip about those that couldn’t make it :-). I don’t remember the last time I found myself laughing out loud at a joke that ended with, “A section of the square root of a principle fibre bundle!”

In the near future I’ll put up a few other tidbits from the conference. I’d like to especially thank Olga and the local organising group, Steffen for hosting me, and everyone for making it such a lively event. A bit of a teaser: the powers-that-be are already working on a `big’ Part III Return conference next year. This event will invite back the last five Part III classes over the range of pure and applied mathematics. (I’m already looking for ways to fund my way back from the US!)


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