Last week, I was at a Finite Geometry conference in Kloster Irsee. Michael Giudici and John Bamberg, two of the proprietors of SymOmega, were also there; you can get another view of the conference from Michael’s blog post.
The name Irsee is not cognate with the Austrian Irrsee (“crazy lake”) but is apparently derived from Ursus, bear.
The monastery was founded in the twelfth century and, after a turbulent history, was secularised at the start of the nineteenth century. Halfway through that century, it was converted into a mental hospital. Infamously, in the Nazi era, the patients, many of them children, were used as subjects in “experiments”, which resulted in many deaths. The memorial of this period is built on top of a mound which is said to contain many human bones. The mental hospital was closed in 1972, and twelve years later the monastery became a conference and training centre run by the Swabian government.
I did manage to clear up one confusion. Swabia, as indicated, is an administrative region of Bavaria; but it is also a linguistic and cultural region including the eastern part of Baden–Württemberg as well as the western part of Bavaria. So some of the people around Oberwolfach, whose German speech is rather difficult to understand, may be Swabians too.
Like all good German monasteries, Irsee had its own brewery, just across the street, which still operates, producing very good beer, including a Jubiläumsbier commemorating the 250th anniversary of the death of Meinrad Spiess. He was the music director of the monastery and a composer of Marian devotional music. He was also a music theorist, who described music as
clearly sounding numbers, mathematics made audible.
I’ll drink to that.
Continuing the dark shading of this story: we went by train, which included an overnight German sleeper from Paris to Augsburg. The train went rather slowly with long stops, including three quarters of an hour in Strasbourg, where security men with a big black dog (barking very loudly) walked up and down the platform. I was packed into a full compartment of six, some of whom wanted the window open while others wanted it shut. Only shortly before this trip I had finished re-reading Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, which gave the whole experience a more sinister edge than it should have had. If you have read the book, you will know what I felt.
The weather was not so good. It was either stormy, or hot and humid, or cold and rainy, almost the whole time. But the rain mostly held off on the free afternoon, so we managed a short walk through the Swabian countryside, with forest, farmland, and a glimpse of the Alps in the distance. The only downside was the horseflies. The farmers are agitating for a fair price for their milk:
There was also enough sun in the morning and evening to allow me to get some good pictures of the interior of the monastery. On the last evening I went into the church, an astonishing example of baroque church decoration, including a pulpit in the shape of the prow of a ship, commemorating the naval battle of Lepanto in 1582; and a skeleton in armour.
Mathematically it was a lovely conference. It is difficult to pick out just a few talks, but of the plenaries, I specially liked Jonathan Jedwab talking about the asymptotic merit factor of binary sequences (a measure of how close they are to Barker sequences, which don’t exist for length greater than 13), and Massimo Giulietti on maximal curves over a finite field (curves meeting the Hasse–Weil upper bound for the number of points), a very clear and comprehensive account of recent developments in this area.
A very high proportion of participants gave talks. I was particularly impressed by the high standard set by the young people. And even those who seemed furthest from the main theme of the conference seem to have taken some benefit. David Glynn and Jeanne Scott both talked about families of curves in the plane, and some of the remarkable conclusions you can draw from them; later I saw them deep in conversation.
One participant, an old friend and co-author, asked me whether I consider myself a finite geometer. My answer should have been that I am a mathematician. But two ex-students and about ten co-authors of mine were there, so I felt at home.
Blogging was not easy, since the ethernet connection had to be refreshed every few minutes! My technique of writing locally and uploading paid off.