This week I am in Birmingham for the British Combinatorial Conference.

The organisation of the conference is outstanding. For one small example, yesterday, fifteen minutes before the Business Meeting was due to start, the Chairman noticed that we didn’t have the minutes of the previous Business Meeting to approve. The Secretary had the file on a laptop, and before the meeting started we had fifty printed copies to distribute.

After the excitement about ADE last week, these diagrams reappeared twice in the first couple of days, Hendrik Van Maldeghem (who talked about geometrical and combinatorial constructions of buildings) showed us all the crystallographic Coxeter–Dynkin diagrams. In a completely different context, Alexander Gavrilyuk mentioned the fact that connected simple graphs with spectral radius at most 2 are the ADE diagrams and the extended ADE diagrams. He attributed this to Smith (1969) and Lemmens and Seidel (1973). I think it would be not unjust to say that this result was part of the classification of the complex simple Lie algebras by Cartan and Killing in the last decade of the nineteenth century. That aside, Alexander was extending this to directed graphs, using a Hermitian adjacency matrix with entries 1 if there are arcs both ways between two vertices, while single arcs from *v* to *w* have i (the complex fourth root of 1) in position (*v,w*) and −i in position (*w,v*). This had been done by Guo and Mohar, but some small corrections were necessary; he used results of Greaves and McKee to achieve these. (As a footnote to this, it seems to be that to use τ, a complex 6th root of unity, in place of i would be more natural, since the sum of τ and its complex conjugate is 1 rather than 0.)

In fact, for the graph case, much more is known: the graphs whose greatest eigenvalue is at most 2 are the ADE diagrams and their extensions, but the graphs whose least eigenvalue is at least −2 can also be described.

The conference featured mini-symposia, and I organised one on “Designs and Finite Geometries”, which in my opinion has had some beautiful talks so far, from Ian Wanless on plexes in Latin squares, Rosemary Bailey on designs related to the Sylvester graphs (and the wrong turnings on the way to finding them), Peter Keevash on his and others’ results on existence of designs (including the fact that estimates for the number of Steiner systems, asymptotic in the logarithm, are now available, and hinting that he had constructions of large sets of Steiner systems for large admissible orders), and Moura Paterson on authentication schemes.

One of the most exciting talks was by Igor Pak. He has formulae, and good asymptotic estimates, for the numbers of standard Young tableaux for various skew Young diagrams. This was a mix of all kinds of things, including counting linear extensions of posets, rhombus tilings, plane partitions, counting disjoint paths, Vershik’s limiting tableau shapes, and a remarkable formula of Coxeter, which (if I copied it correctly) says

Σ(φ^{n}/*n*^{2}) cos(2π*n*/5) = π^{2}/100

(the sum over all positive integers *n*.)

Coxeter’s discovery of this formula was based on the existence of the 600-cell (a regular polytope in 4 dimensions) and some spherical geometry. As far as I can tell, the formula was not actually used in the talk, but the philosophy of it led to some of the things that came later.

Two things about the talk were a pity. First, there was no paper in the Proceedings. (In the history of the BCC, it has happened a few times that a speaker provided no talk; indeed I was the editor of the first “published-in-advance” volume, at Royal Holloway in 1975, where I failed to get papers from either Conway or Kasteleyn.) So I am unable to check these details. Second, Igor started in a bit of a rush, and some things were not clearly explained. For example, I think some nodding acquaintance with Plancherel measure is needed to make sense of the Vershik asympotic shape of a random Young diagram, and I didn’t find that in the talk. But it was so full of amazing stuff that it is perhaps churlish to complain.

Apart from these I will be very selective in my reporting. One contributed talk I really enjoyed was by Natasha Dobrinen, on the Ramsey theory of Henson’s homogeneous K_{n}-free graphs, which included a description of them in terms of trees. It went part rather fast (the talks were only 20 minutes), but I wonder whether this leads to a probabilistic approach to Henson’s graph. I have reported before how I laboured over this, and how Anatoly Vershik explained to me his construction with Petrov in a leisurely afternoon in Penderel’s Oak in London – a construction which is clearly related to the topic of *graphons*, the subject of Dan Král’s talk.

Then there was a sequence of three nice talks on quite different topics, but all related to permutations (in the combinatorial rather than the group-theoretic sense). Simon Blackburn proved a nice asymptotic result about random permutations for the uniform measure. At the end, Robert Johnson asked whether there were similar results for other measures. This was because Robert’s talk, which was next, was able to prove some of the results for wider classes of measures, though not for the Boltzmann measure, which he gave as an open problem. Then David Galvin talked. One of his results was that, far from being monotonic, the sequence of coefficients (excluding the constant term) in the independent set polynomial of a graph with independence number *m* can be any permutation of {1,…*m*}. This suggested to me another interesting measure on permutations. Choose *n* much larger than *m*, and choose a random graph on *n* vertices with independence number *m*; this induces a probability measure on the permutations. Does this measure tend to a limit as *n*→∞? If so, this could claim to be a “natural” measure on permutations. Fred thought this was an interesting question.

Any ideas?

We had a reception in the remarkable Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Guided tours of the gallery were offered. We went upstairs, and the first picture we saw was René Magritte’s famous picture “The flavour of tears”. Tuesday was the concert, and apart from having to move to a different room because the piano hadn’t been unlocked, we had a remarkable evening’s entertainment; there are several outstanding pianists at the conference. Today is the excursion, to the Museum of Black Country Living; but I have work to do …