I went to a conference last week. It wasn't the first conference I've been to, but in some ways it was the first "real" one since the actual first was before I started the PhD, and neither of the ones before this was strictly relevant to my topic.
This was the 5th Young Set Theory Workshop, held at the CIRM, a conference centre in Luminy, near Marseille in the south of France. Since I study set theory, this was definitely a good start.
The surroundings of Marseille are pretty spectacular --- slanted rock strata form impressive, somewhat barren mountains with sparse coverings of scrub. I watched these slide past on the bus from the airport, and again on the bus from the train station, in a slight daze having got up at 4:30 in the morning, with only coach- and plane-sleep to supplement. Nonetheless it was suitably impressive.
Arriving at the conference with old tutor Andrew (whom I'd met at the bus stop, handily settling the question of which side of the road the bus went from) I found old friends David and Greg --- we'd graduated together with PhDs in set theory lined up, so we knew it wasn't "goodbye" and sure enough we'd made it this far.
The days that followed were a pleasant mix of mathematics and socialising. I find it very easy to get on with academics; whether it's that our thinking patterns are similar, their outlooks or something that smacks less of pseudo-science, there seem always to be good humour and a similar curiosity. The latter especially so in such a context when there are many strangers from different cultures.
I was glad that I had learned the rudiments of Forcing, since the majority of talks and lectures touched on the subject in some way. At times I felt pretty behind --- which is to be expected, although it can be disheartening when there are apparently intelligent questions from the audience indicating they have a clue what's going on. However by the end it was clear that, at least among the early PhD students, I was predictably in good company (and in fact several of us opted out of some of the later talks)
Itay Neeman's lecture series was specifically on Proper Forcing --- a technique I hadn't even heard of, but were actually quite understandable. The reason for this is that he actually covered only the basics; this was described as
It was as if, in the first lecture, he showed this beautiful, pristine, vinyl record, just lifting it from the dust jacket. But then he spent the next three lectures building a record player, only playing a tiny snatch of it in the last few minutes and saying "oh, you can come and listen to it at my house!"
So he obviously was left wanting more of the advanced stuff!
Anyways there were also a few talks quite directly related to my work, which is pretty much a first. Likewise it's amazing to be able to talk about my research without simplifying everything; there's a broad spectrum from "lay person" through "general mathematician" to "pure mathematician", "set theorist" and finally "someone who understands what I'm talking about". Even within the conference most people don't understand all the background to a particular person's research.
The social aspect is of course not to be ignored. We all spent long evenings telling jokes and discussing the fine distinctions between British and American English (we call it a "table tennis bat", they call it a "ping pong paddle"!) drinking slightly overpriced French wine. There was also a vending machine that dispensed beer, which was a bit disturbing...
There was a Greek who knew about as much Monty Python as I do, a Canadian who taught us Magic: The Gathering, a Finn who was as serious as the stereotype and who told disturbing jokes and everyone else besides. In the discussion blocks one was free to find someone to talk maths with or chat about this and that. One afternoon we walked out over the hill down to the "calanque" or inlet to paddle in the Mediterranean. (There was also a more intrepid group which hiked up the mountain --- I was not feeling up for this, clearly the right decision in the end as I didn't have nearly enough water and got sunburnt on the shorter walk.) Here I caught up with Greg, who, it turns out, is in a similar situation to me; we both procrastinate too much but have proved one or two rather trivial results that nonetheless serve to boost ones confidence.
On other occasions I told someone who knew about Determinacy what I was doing, and he suggested some interesting things that might be useful in the future. Another time I looked at a generalisation of stationary sets with my supervisor's other student. One other time I told David and Greg how MOBA games like LoL and DotA work.
Before long it was time to return home. For the second time I brought my terrible French to bear to tell the staff that I didn't need lunch on Friday (the first was to check I was boarding the correct train; I was. In fact I was surprised by how much French I remembered, although I certainly forgot almost all of it) and was away at 11AM. 13 hours of travelling later and I was home by 11PM, UK time. Protip: Marseille terminal MP2 is a dive and a sandwich/drink combo costs €7 --- altogether an unpleasant place for your flight to be delayed an hour. Not that being stuck at passport control for nearly an hour at Stansted is much better, especially when you can't even see the passport desks.