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What would the appropriate initial steps be to host a MathOverflow conference?

Back in 2019 I hosted a party for the 10th anniversary of MathOverflow, and it was a blast.$^*$ Since then I've ruminated on the possibility of hosting larger 'MathOverflow' conferences, and this post represents the first real effort toward that goal.

Obviously it would be possible to 'just do it', i.e. pick a venue and begin sending out invitations, but this seems suboptimal for several reasons.

  1. I have no idea how (un)popular the idea is.

  2. I have no idea if I'll run into any legal issues with Stack Exchange or MO by representing the conference as an 'official' MathOverflow conference.

  3. I would like many aspects of the conference to be 'crowdsourced' from MathOverflow, for example:

  • the main mathematical fields of the conference,
  • the invited speaker list,
  • the event itinerary,
  • the overall goal of the conference, etc.
  1. I would ideally like to have some 'big names' on board. I'm comfortable with my standing on site, but outside of various online communities and my undergrad university I have no presence in the mathematical community whatsoever. This makes me doubt that anyone outside the existing MO pool would look twice at a speaking invitation from me or an advertisement with my name on it, but there are regular participants here who are highly respected and esteemed in the mathematical community at large -- if any of this pantheon finds the idea of a MathOverflow conference interesting and becomes involved in its planning, the potential scope of mathematicians interested in attending broadens greatly.

This post is intended as a discussion hub for any and all topics related to potential future MathOverflow conferences; any relevant input is appreciated.


EDIT: Negative feedback is also appreciated! In light of the initial negative response, if any of the downvoters have any comments against this being a good idea I would like to hear them.


$^*$Shouts out to Gerhard, Peter, Anna, Anton, Gjergji, Larry and Cheryl; that night is a very fond memory. Too bad we stopped drinking before tattoos sounded like a good idea!

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    $\begingroup$ I think it sounds like fun. $\endgroup$ Sep 16 at 9:38
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    $\begingroup$ One major logistical issue you didn’t mention is funding. I think the general expectation for a conference is that at the very least the travel costs for speakers are covered, and typically there is also support available for junior participants without their own grants. You will also need to pay for the venue and things like coffee breaks (though if a university is hosting it then you can often get them to at least offer space for free). So you’ll need a co-organizer to write a grant for this (there are complicated rules about who can be awarded grants). $\endgroup$ Sep 16 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ Just to be clear, I say this not to dissuade you — this could be a fun and productive conference — but just to warn you that organizing a conference involves a lot more than just picking a venue and sending out invitations. My guess is that some of the downvotes stemmed from a perception that you seemed a bit naive about what goes into this kind of thing. By the way, I was not one of the downvoters. $\endgroup$ Sep 16 at 13:52
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    $\begingroup$ @AndyPutman My intention was to fund the event myself. My family has a 60+ acre horse ranch about 30 minutes outside San Francisco that I used for the 2019 party, and I'm confident that we can outfit the property for a conference of anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand people (multiple arenas that can be retrofitted with chairs and stages, etc.). All the trimmings and fixings were also going to be coming out of my pocket -- I was expecting to cover travel and lodging for any invited speakers, and am open to the idea of additional support being made available. $\endgroup$
    – Alec Rhea
    Sep 16 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ @JoelDavidHamkins Excellent, you're one of the community members I was most looking forward to inviting to speak! $\endgroup$
    – Alec Rhea
    Sep 16 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ Wow, sounds great! $\endgroup$ Sep 16 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ @AlecRhea: Good, it sounds like have thought about a lot of the issues. The only piece of advice I'd give is to try to recruit a scientific committee from among academic mathematicians who are active on MO. This will not only give you credibility, but also help with lots of logistical things that might come up (e.g., how to phrase invitations, how to navigate the politics of who to invite and who is likely to come, etc.). $\endgroup$ Sep 16 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ The annual JMM (joint mathematics meetings) often contains within it meetings of various smaller organizations. $\endgroup$ Sep 17 at 1:01
  • $\begingroup$ @AndyPutman Thank you, this is exactly the kind of advice I was looking for. I'll begin compiling a list of candidates for a scientific committee and send out emails within the next few days! $\endgroup$
    – Alec Rhea
    Sep 17 at 5:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Alec Rhea: Wouldn't it be much more responsible to organize a virtual conference? A face-to-face event means that many participants are flying to SF, produce tons of harmful carbon emissions and accellerate climate crisis. We all are familiar with online conferences since covid-19 pandemic and they work quite well. Also its likely that more MO members around the world could attend a virtual than a physical conference, be it for cost, time or political reasons (for example, it can be hard for mathematicans from Russia or Iran to get an entry permit for the USA). $\endgroup$
    – tj_
    Sep 18 at 12:32
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    $\begingroup$ There are many advantages to an online conference, including some listed by @tj_. But having attended a couple of in-person conferences recently, I was reminded anew that they also have a great many advantages. Somehow running into colleagues at coffee breaks or over drinks tends to lead to a lot more collaboration and/or exchange of ideas. Attending a talk in-person commands one's attention in a way that a video might not. Et cetera. $\endgroup$ Sep 19 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ I'd like to attend. This sounds fun. $\endgroup$ Sep 21 at 15:39

1 Answer 1

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After sending out an initial round of invitations for a scientific committee and reviewing the responses, I've decided to proceed with planning the conference solo -- none of the invited members could find time for the commitment.

It is possible that this lack of response could indicate a general lack of interest in a MO conference -- of the 388 views on this post there are only 16 upvotes, and if only ~4% of MO (meta!) readers are even interested enough for an upvote it probably doesn't bode well for the conference overall.

I am personally thrilled by the idea, if that didn't come through above -- professional mathematicians have always seemed like professional sports players to me, except they're playing a more difficult sport that actually matters, and this conference would be the equivalent of an all-star game where the best of the best come to be celebrated, honored, and show the rest of us the fancy new moves they've got up their sleeves.

I understand that this is a somewhat unorthodox view of mathematics; I used to laugh about it with my professors as an undergrad, but it's how I feel and has consequently been the muse informing my vision for this conference. If this vision is less appealing to other mathematicians, I am very open to collaboration on what a mathoverflow conference should aspire to be.


All of that being said, here's what I'm thinking so far. tj_ brings up excellent points about online conferences in the comment thread above -- fewer carbon emissions, easier accessibility for mathematicians outside the US, and much lower overhead. Although I am slightly less enthused about the idea of a virtual conference than I am a physical one, I think it's an excellent suggestion and should be incorporated somehow into the final result if the conference comes to pass.

It seems like a 'decentralized conference' might be a nice bridge between the two worlds -- have people gather up geographically if they'd like to, similar to what happened on the 10th anniversary, then link everybody up virtually and commence with a conference where we have a list of invited speakers, workshops, etc., all attended by these geographical groupings together with individuals attending from home/coffee shops etc. We could also split people up into virtual groups for the workshops, allowing for group collaboration even when attending the conference from home.

These are just ideas to get the ball rolling -- this is very much intended as a collaborative endeavor, so please don't hesitate to pipe up with any additional suggestions. If general community interest in the idea is insufficient at this time, of course it would be impractical to forge ahead and I'll lay the idea to rest for now.

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