British Mathematical Colloquium

I need your help.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we are hosting the British Mathematical Colloquium in April 2014.

When I first went to the BMC as a student, the pattern of main talks was already established: high-profile evening speakers; morning speakers from the British community given the chance to set out their stalls. The other ingredient was the “splinter groups” devoted to different subjects. These were organised somewhat informally; almost nobody who offered a talk was turned down. I remember John Conway at one of my early BMCs, perhaps even my first. I think he was a morning speaker, but as a mathematician of enormously wide range, he had offered talks to several splinter groups, and gave them all. I remember him talking about octonions; he introduced us to the “plaiting identity”, but his accent was so impenetrable to my Australian ears that I heard it as the “punting identity”.

The pattern has changed. This was done in an effort to combat falling attendances in the last couple of decades. Now we have workshops instead of splinter groups; these are arranged in advance, and each is linked to one or two invited speakers. The idea is that people can treat a workshop as a specialist conference, something like the satellite conferences at the ICM, but on-site and in the conference period. I organised one of these on combinatorics in the 1990s, and gave a morning talk at the same meeting.

But I am worried that we are perhaps driving some people away by too much concentration on workshops. Rather than welcoming all mathematicians, we pitch the conference at those in the workshop areas, and suggest to the others that it may not be worth their while to come.

I don’t know quite what to do about it. I think I would like to change the balance between organised workshops and spontaneous splinter groups back a bit towards the latter. Any ideas?

Gordon Royle suggested on SymOmega recently the concept of “invited non-speakers”. This has some attractions, especially since some invited speakers regard their commitment as simply to turn up and give a talk. (Only a minority, fortunately.) I wonder about this; but Gordon’s idea was to get excellent mathematicians who would interact with others but are not good speakers. I think that the correlation between giving a good talk and being helpful to young mathematicians may be greater than Gordon allows.

Another relatively new thing at the BMC are public talks, supporting special events or anniversaries. Next year, for example, is Alan Turing’s centenary, and this will be commemorated at the BMC.

I am open to suggestions about what anniversaries are coming up in 2014, or other topical issues we might cover.


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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