What Is Research?

July 7, 2009

Million words on the first-year: Mocumentary of first-year life at Chicago

Filed under: Chicago,Places and events — vipulnaik @ 10:10 pm

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. A six-minute video is probably a thousand pictures.

There is a tradition in the mathematics department of the University of Chicago whereby, at the end of each academic year, the second-year class organizes an evening of skits called “Beer Skits” (“beer” because the skits are accompanied by huge servings of beer). As part of the tradition, we decided this year to create a mocumentary (mock documentary) of life in the first year at Chicago. I had the original concept and fleshed out the main scenes, but a lot of the editing work before, during, and after the shooting was done by many of my batchmates, who all added their own insights and removed some of my original ones that would have been too abstruse.

Our six-minute video is a little funny, but it is also quite realistic, as those who have gone through a similar experience can attest. Okay, agreed, some of the scenes towards the end stretch the boundaries of realism, but almost everything we have is a slight adaptation of something that actually happened during our first year.

Below is an embedded Youtube video (you can make it full-screen for better viewing).

Download a high-resolution 3mbps DVD quality version in Windows Media Video format (104 MB).

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January 3, 2008

Eat pizza and a math speaker

Filed under: Chicago — vipulnaik @ 8:52 pm
Tags: ,

In an earlier post, I had described the system of student talks that I had initiated at Chennai Mathematical Institute, I’ve now passed out of CMI and the student talks are still continuing; in fact, they are flourishing better than they were in my time, thanks to the efforts of Swarnava and Kshitij.

Student talks at CMI were a small-town affair in my time: audience sizes ranged from 3 to 10, the speaker (usually I) would wait for all the people he/she knew would attend, before beginning, and the talk had no scheduled end time there was an estimated talk duration but nobody was accountable for it). Talks were schedule on arbitrary days, at the convenience of those who were interested in attending. The talks were usually delivered in a seminar hall, which had a seating capacity of around a 100 people, and I often used slideshows. With an audience of only 4-5 people in the huge hall, it was almost like a luxury event.

The student talks (dubbed Pizza Seminars) at the University of Chicago are a completely different affair. The first major thing is that the lure of mathematical knowledge is not the only incentive for attending: there’s free pizza too, and the talk is scheduled during the lunch hour, which, for the first-years, is the break-time between two lectures. Many of us, tired from the previous night’s assignment slog, used to grab pizza, finish it, and fall off to sleep.

(The pizzas are not funded by the speaker; they’re funded by the Math Department and the Physical Sciences Division of the University).

Secondly, the talks are held on a fixed schedule: once a week, at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. This isn’t surprising; if pizzas are being offered, one can’t schedule an unlimited number of talks based on whims and fancies. Speakers have to start on time, break on time (for a second serving of pizza) and end on time.

Thirdly (and I wouldn’t say this is independent of the first reason) the talks are much better attended. The Barn, which can seat around around 50-60 people, is nearly full for every talk.

This leads to a lot of differences in the way the talks are conducted. In our undergraduate institution, people were often quite passionate on the topics they were talking about; here, the talks are largely viewed as a supplement to the pizza, and speakers, even the good ones, appear more indifferent to the impact they make on the audience. With a long line of speakers and only one talk per week, it’s very different from the situation in CMI where a talk slot was actually fixed based on the convenience of those who regularly attended. Finally, with such a huge audience, it’s much easier to get lost in what the speaker is saying, although there are a number of spirited interruptions to the Pizza Seminar in the first five minutes when the audience hasn’t given up hope.

An example can be the talks I myself gave on the same topic, one in CMI, the other in Chicago. The topic was extensible automorphisms. In the talk I gave at CMI, I spent a large amoun of time defining groups, inner automorphisms, extensible automorphisms, and developing machinery of representation theory as well as some leading ideas. The audience was much younger, and I’m not sure how much they understood of the talk, but there was a slow-world air about it. My talk in Chicago was a light-hearted but quick-styled affair; I jumped from here to there, throwing in some wry humour at various points, and trying to give a quick peek into the topic to a significantly smarter and more knowledgeable, but on the whole more preoccupied and less interested audience.

A more fundamental difference between the Pizza Seminars in Chicago and the student talks in CMI, however, is the backdrop. In our undergraduate institution, students often have little or no opportunities to teach or explain in a formal setting; graduate students in the University of Chicago, on the other hand, get to teach or assist in teaching regular courses. Thus, there is hardly that much novelty value in addressing a large audience. Further, there is not much one can do to “teach” graduate people in one hour. Student talks in CMI were actually teaching and learning opportunities, even if what was learned was eventually forgotten.

A few weeks ago, I asked the current coordinators of student talks at CMI, about the possible directions these talks might take if pizzas were offered at each talk. He said that attendance would certainly rise, because people cared more about pizzas than about math. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is debatable. The debate here is not about the health impact of pizzas, but rather about the issue of what the goal of talks is, who the target audience is, and what kind of value (over and above the pizza) is to be imparted to the audience.

August 30, 2007

Setting off to Chicago

Filed under: Chicago,Places and events,Regular updates — vipulnaik @ 7:12 am

It’s a long time since I last posted on this blog. The last two months, since I returned from Paris, have largely been holiday time for me, and I’ve been doing some miscellaneous stuff to prepare myself for the next important phase of my life. On September 8, just ten days from now, I will board a plane to Chicago, to begin my five-year doctoral programme in mathematics at the University of Chicago.

The first year of the programme at the Universty of Chicago is mainly compulsory coursework. There are three quarters (each three months long) and three course sequences (Algebra, Analysis and Topology). In each quarter, there is one course from each sequence. So a total of nine courses for the first year.

Chicago differs in this respect from other graduate schools. In some graduate schools like Princeton, there is no well-defined framework of compulsory courses, rather students have to pick and choose their courses from a set of recommended courses and prepare themselves for examinations at the end of the first year. From what I can infer, the emphasis in places like Princeton is to get people started on research-like work from a fairly early stage. The pressure to publish thus begins in the first two years itself. In Chicago, on the other hand, there is no pressure to publish; the first few years are meant to strengthen the fundamentals in various areas of mathematics and research is intended for later years.

A couple of months ago, I received an email from Peter May, addressed to all the incoming graduate students, about coursework for the first year. I found that a lot of the material in the courses, particularly the Analysis sequence, was completely unheard of, and thought I should probably start reading up for it. However, I started reading up measure theory and analysis only recently, and am finding it somewhat hard for now. This is probably the consequence of not having done any courses in measure theory and not having a good analysis background. I hope that by contrast, my somewhat better background in algebra will prove an asset to me for the algebra courses, particularly the courses in representation theory and groups. Areas where I have a little, but not a very good, background, are algebraic topology, commutative algebra, and algebraic geometry. In these areas, I hope to keep reasonable pace with the coursework, though I probably will not find it too easy.

I think that the course-based structure for the first year at Chicago will definitely be a help to me so that I can get up to scratch in all important aspects of mathematics. More importantly, I will be able to overcome the fear and reluctance that I currently have with certain kinds of proof techniques and terminology (particularly that of analysis). Another advantage of such a structure is that I will automatically get an opportunity to interact with a number of Chicago faculty members in all branches of mathematics, something I may not be able to achieve of my own initiative. Further, I will also get to interact with my fellow graduate students in and outside the classroom.

In my second year at Chicago, I will be expected to write a paper in a topic of my choice, acquire a working knowledge of a language other than English (I’ll probably choose French, given that have already picked up some French) and submit a master’s thesis. During the second year, I will also be functioning as a Teaching Assistant for an undergraduate math course.

From the third year onwards, I will be expected to start doctoral work full-force, and simultaneously I will need to teach a course of Freshman Calculus. In Chicago, as in many American universities, all freshmen (incoming undergraduate students) need to study one calculus course, irrespective of their stream of specialization. The job of teaching these courses is assigned to doctoral students in the mathematics department.

Currently, it is too early for me to think of questions like what topic I will choose for my thesis, who my thesis advisor will be, how many years it will take me to complete my thesis work, and whether I want to continue to a post-doctoral position in mathematics after that. I do have some ideas and preferences on these counts, but it is only after I go to Chicago and observe the work environment there, and assess my own research abilities in that environment, that I can take the correct decisions. For now, my focus is to equip myself to get the best out of my first year, and to understand the temperament and qualities needed for research, through close observation.

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