North meets South - helping mathematicians to understand each other

Mathematics can look like a foreign language to those who have not studied it in depth. Even for mathematicians, it can be difficult to understand the work of colleagues in other branches of mathematics, or indeed to know what questions they are seeking to answer in their research, because the vocabularies are so specialised and technical. A huge success of modern mathematics is that it is both broad and deep: mathematicians study a wide range of topics, and our knowledge in many of these areas is now so great that in order to work at the cutting edge of research one must specialise a lot. 

There is a tension, though, because while mathematicians need to immerse themselves in their research areas in order to make progress, at the same time they also need to be aware of developments in other areas that might help their work. Above all, and perhaps contrary to some perceptions, mathematics is highly interconnected and collaborative, and very often progress happens by making connections between research areas.

Oxford Mathematics seeks to address this in a number of ways. At the physical level, the splendid new home of the department, the Andrew Wiles Building, has been designed to facilitate both deliberate collaboration and also spontaneous exchanges of mathematical ideas through communal spaces (not least the excellent Café π).

Last year, Oxford Mathematics went one step further with a new initiative aimed at helping mathematicians to get to know what their Oxford colleagues are working on, and to give early career researchers the opportunity to share their work.

The new Fridays@4 project involves a programme of weekly sessions, aimed primarily but not exclusively at graduate students and postdocs, including a mix of colloquia, skills training, and advice on personal and career development. Part of this programme is the new ‘North meets South’ colloquium, organised by early career researchers and with early career researchers as invited speakers.

The colloquia happen once or twice each term. Each features two speakers, one from the north wing of the Andrew Wiles Building (roughly corresponding to pure mathematics, although that is a rather crude way to subdivide mathematics), and one from the south wing (roughly corresponding to applied mathematics). The speakers are asked to ensure that their talks are accessible to all the mathematicians in the department, not only those in their research areas.  Last year saw talks on a selection of topics: cluster algebras, modelling data streams, topological quantum field theory and defects in liquid crystals. This week (November 4) sees the first North meets South colloquium for this academic year, featuring Emilie Dufresne and Robert Van Gorder talking about their work. Interestingly, while both are working in Applied Mathematics, much of their work has also been in Pure Maths and Emilie's talk on separating sets in Invariant Theory is indeed Pure Mathematics. She and Robert are perhaps the ultimate North meets Southers, today's modern mathematicians. 

Heather Harrington and Brent Pym were instrumental in the setting up of North meets South. “We created this internal colloquium to learn what other young mathematicians here in Oxford are working on, and to form a network of early career researchers. Last year's speakers showed great skill, delivering exciting and accessible talks about research-level mathematics - and in only 30 minutes each! As organisers, we have observed that this experience is rewarding for the speakers, but even more so for Oxford Mathematics, as it brings together mathematicians from many subfields. We hope that North meetsSouth is another example of how such events can spark interactions that cross mathematical lines.”

The success of the North meets South colloquium is in itself a reminder of why mathematicians need to talk to each other, both to ensure that they make the most of the ideas and expertise around them, and, above all, to motivate them in their work. This is not a recreational add-on, but a core component of a modern mathematician's life.