To set the context for this blog post, I am among three students from Chennai Mathematical Institute who will be visiting Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris for an exchange programme. This exchange programme happens every year, with the top three students from the passing-out undergraduate batch going for the two summer months (May-June) to the ENS.
I came to know about this some time in the month of November (of course, I unofficially knew about it long ago). For some time, the upcoming visit has been filling me with a mix of hopeful anticipation and a sense of dread.
Among the more basic issues are the issues of food, living etc. it seems there may be some adjustments needed on that front, but on the whole, it should be manageable. Then there’s the fact that I am visiting Paris, which is supposed to be one of the best cities in a variety of ways (I don’t really know much about these things, but I’ve been told this so I am looking forward to seeing the place for myself).
On the academic front, I need to find myself a guide (I’m not sure about the need to part but I guess that to make my stay academically useful it’s best to work under a guide) and then to follow up on reading some stuff under that guide. From what I understand, I’ll have to give a presentation at the end of it.
The great thing is that from what I have fathered, the ENS is among the best research institutes for mathematics across the world, and the academic environment there is likely to be good. The mathematics department is much larger than that of CMI, and contains some big names. And I have interacted with some people from the ENS who have come to CMI and I’m definitely keen to meet more of them.
On the flip side, I have the memories of my one-month stay at TIFR, Mumbai where I went for the Visiting Students’ Research Programme. I had a nice time there (Navy Nagar, Mumbai is a nice place and TIFR, situated right on the seashore, is particularly nice) and moreover I got computer access and I used that to do all the things I usually do at home and in CMI and more. And there were some other people who had come to the VSRP with whom I occasionally used to have intense discussions. And I got to meet some fine professors.
But for the paper that I had been assigned to do (viz ”Lie Group Representations of Polynomial Rings”) opccupied very little of my time — in fact, there were days on end when I hardly even touched the paper. True, I did put up a few intense spells on it, but I wonder whether these few intense spells were all that the academic component of TIFR was.
There were also the illuminating sessions with my guide, Professor Dipendra Prasad, but unfortunately, because I was not making good enough progress on the paper, these sessions could not be too frequent. Had I worked more on the paper, and perhaps on some other related things, I may have been able to extract more.
I’m wondering whether the ENS, France will be something like that.
The further complication is that, out there at the ENS, I’ll be in a foreign place where I may not know that much about how to interact with the people and what their social conventions may be. While I don’t think that this will lead to any major social gaffes, it could definitely hamper my comfort level in approaching people and in seeking them out. Also, since I’ll be in a far-off country, the number of sources of amusement, reassurance and comfort (if things aren’t working out) will be fewer.
Here at TIFR, for instance, even when the academics was getting too bad, I could always pass my time on the computer, or talk to the other VSRP fellows, or go out in the streets and in general meet up with other people. In Paris, I’m not sure how easy it’ll be for me to do such things.
On the other hand, I do have the advantage of more maturity, and also, I know that, like TIFR, I can enjoy and have fun and do a bit of work — I don’t have to do a lot of work just because I am going there.