Maine-Quebec Number Theory Conference

I haven’t done much posting of note outside of Not About Apples in quite a while, but I’m thinking that might change soon. A lot of my time and energy for August and September got absorbed by getting ready for the Maine-Quebec Number Theory Conference which happened last weekend, but that is now successfully behind me.

The hardest part was getting out my wife’s car to enter the airport. It was the first time I had to fly away from my family since my son’s birth in January (though much worse was flying away for the Joint Meetings just _before_ he was born, not quite being sure he wouldn’t be born in my absence), and both of my children were crying at me to stay or take them with me.

The flight was smooth and only delated a little bit, and I got to fly into Bangor airport, which treated my wife and I so well when we flew there for our honeymoon in July 2008. Actually, it was a little bit surreal to fly in at 12:30 in the morning to find the airport absolutely full of soldiers (I *think* they were soldiers rather than airmen, I know it’s not the same) waiting to deploy. The amount of enthusiasm and general upbeatness displayed by these people, most of them younger than me, getting ready to go off to a war, was inspirational.

Because, inexplicably, it was cheaper to fly in on Thursday night and stay another night in a hotel than to fly in Friday morning, I got a day in Maine to do with as I please. Orono, the college town in the suburbs of Bangor where the University of Maine is located, is absolutely gorgeous. They always talk about Maine in fall, and it’s all true. I spent the day taking extremely long walks around the town and down long and winding roads (none of which, it turned out, led to my your door, but it never hurts to try) while contemplating some number theory articles I had brought for the purpose.

Walking and thinking about how to solve deep mathematical problems, I feel a great kinship with mathematicians tracing all the way back through mathematical history to its prehistory. How many people have looked at a tree in fall and contemplated prime numbers? I don’t get the same feeling of connection to mathematicians through the ages when mathing at my computer.

Something about being in Maine gives everything a heightened sense of reality. (So it is no surprise at all to me that Stephen King sets so many of his tales there.) Even for Maine, though, my conference experience bordered on surreal. Perhaps the full moon that weekend exascerbated the situation.

The surreal tone was set by the taxi driver who took me from Bangor into Orono. When he learned that I was in town for a number theory conference, he asked if I was a mathematician. Upon hearing that I was, he went off on a beautiful monologue on why math was interesting. The resulting cab ride provided one of the most interesting intellectual conversations I have had in a very long time (including those with mathematicians). The moment when I realized this was not an ordinary cab ride: when he opened with “I believe it was the philosopher Wittgenstein who said ‘Logic is the hardest substance known to man.’ ”

The conference was an outstanding success by any measure. There were a very high proportion of excellent talks, and no talks I saw that I wouldn’t call at least “very good”. Dick Gross’s plenary talk which began the thing was gorgeous, and the David Cox gave a historical talk on Galois theory through the eyes of Galois that reminded me why I am a number theorist. And I achieved my goals — I gave a talk with which I’m pleased, learned a lot of things from some of the smartest people I’ll ever meet, had many good mathematical conversations with several of them. Next time I get absolutely and hopeless stuck in my research, the pool of people I’ll feel comfortable asking for insight will be larger. I even acquired a new research problem from my fellow OSU grad, the inimitable Steve Miller, a delicate bit of combinatorial number theory which (I believe) is well suited to my particular talents.

Cheerful coincidence: met and talked at length with Fernando Gouvea (though I didn’t realize that was who I had been talking to until the very end of the conference), whose books on modular forms and p-adic matters I have been reading this past month, and indeed I had been reading on the plane!

Somehow everything worked ideally even though I didn’t get any meaningful sleep at any point in my trip (the first night, for example, the fire alarm was malfunctioning all night), and even though one morning my _shower_ didn’t even work (when I tried to turn the knob, it came off in my hand; when I replaced it and tried again, it came off in my hand, in pieces). How can it be that I did high-intensity for two and a half days under these conditions? Let’s just say the coffee was Starbucks and flowed in epic quantity.

Completing my surreal odyssey, the taxi driver who took me to the airport, an enormous man who used a breathing apparatus, revealed himself to be “a math genius” (actually what I would consider a human calculator). When he discovered my purpose in Maine, he wanted to discuss the authenticity of show Numb3rs.

The trip was wonderful and filled with many fortuitous happenings. It brought me much satisfaction and knowledge, but nothing brought me such joy as seeing my wife and children at the airport, and eating together at Denny’s on the way home.

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