Seminars…

Paul Baum (USA) giving a seminar

For those of you that didn’t know, I’m a grad student in mathematics these days. My two advisors are from the Russian school of mathematics, specifically Moscow State University back in the Soviet days. It seems that the culture of mathematics in Russia and the Soviet Union is/was completely different to that in the west. There is a much greater emphasis placed on examples and simplicity of exposition as well as a much smaller divide between pure and applied mathematics.

Nowhere is this difference more apparent than in seminars in Russia and in the UK. British seminars normally last for an hour and consist of a speaker talking about some part of their current research to an audience of academics who are invited at the end, if there is some time left, to pose some questions relating to the talk. Because of the time constraints, it is rather difficult to ask questions throughout the talk for fear of putting the speaker under time pressure towards the end. Perhaps as a result, there is a terrible risk at any given seminar of being completely lost before the seminar has begun. For instance, suppose the seminar begins

‘Let S be a category fibred in groupoids over a topological space X…’

If you are not familiar with one or more of these words, there is a good chance that the remainder of the seminar will be spent counting water stains on the ceiling, doodling and trying not to fall asleep.

In contrast, my impression of Russian seminars is that they have no fixed end-time. This means that foolish questions from people not completely acquainted with the specifics of the topic at hand are welcome. It seems that these seminars may last up to four or five hours, with tea and snacks served throughout. There is therefore an expectation that attending a Russian seminar, one will understand something or other by the end.

Of course this leads to difficulties when Russian and western mathematicians meet at seminars. Russian mathematicians expect to have learned something by the end while western ones are content with the possibility of being bored witless by a string of incomprehensible phrases, knowing however that it will be over in an hour.

No seminar I have attended has resulted in the following chaos, taken I think from a (sociology?) seminar in the US.  I think sitting through this would be much more excruciating, if less soporific than an hour of incomprehensible maths.

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