Letters to the Editor: An Experimental Format for a Research Meeting

March 30, 2003

To the Editor:

Imagine attending a three-day mathematics research meeting featuring only five speakers, where all the non-presentation time is reserved for discussions of such questions as: What is the central novelty of the presented result and where else might these methods be applied? What relationship between theory and application could be fruitful for the development of this branch of mathematics? Are new and correct results always deserving of publication? When are computational approaches valuable in this subject? What impact does the structure of reward systems have?

Thirteen researchers gathered recently in the picturesque and peaceful setting of the University of Richmond, Virginia, for just such a meeting, on aspects of applied and theoretical combinatorics. The presenters were invited to talk about an influential result (not necessarily their own) and to explain from first principles the context, what was achieved, and why they considered this significant and interesting. They were asked to keep their one-hour talks completely accessible to the entire group by emphasizing principles and methods rather than specialist technical details. The presentations covered a range of applications as diverse as using pooled blood tests to test efficiently for HIV, improving cellular phone reception via multiple antennas, and overcoming physical limitations in designing a hypothetical quantum computer. The talks acted as a springboard to an extended discussion of the meaning and significance of the presented results, and a wide-ranging exploration of more general themes as they emerged.

The meeting, while inspired partly by the Oberwolfach format, was considered by the participants to be unique---as well as stimulating, worthwhile, and enjoyable. Interested readers can find a report on the meeting, "Future Directions in Applied and Theoretical Combinatorics: A View from a Corner." We hope that the report will stimulate interest within the mathematical community in alternatives to the traditional conference model, as well as in the general issues that emerged. We would welcome comments and opinions.

James A. Davis and Jonathan Jedwab, University of Richmond.


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