02 March, 2006

Willkommen in sonnigem Österreich

First I have to give into my evil side and remark that, while in the Frankfurt airport, I found myself waiting in a security line that didn't move for about five or ten minutes. From what I understand of German efficiency, that would mean I experienced a highly unusual moment in German history. I half-expected the sky to fall. It well might have, but the line started moving again. You can thank for this near-apocalypse the fellow who couldn't be bothered to remove the laptop from his backpack before putting it through the X-ray machine.

So here I am at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria. Linz is a gorgeous city. The title is something of a joke; it translates roughly to Welcome to sunny Austria. (I hope it translates to that.) It's been sunny, true, but yesterday it was cloudy and it even snowed a little.

Johannes Kepler University is the home of RICAM, the Research Institute for Computational and Applied Mathematics. It is also the "parent" of RISC, the Research Institute for Symbolic Computation. I would say it's the home, but RISC is actually situated in a castle (!!!) in the village of Hagenburg a few miles away.

The Special Semester on Gröbner Bases and Related Methods is a seminar of sorts organized by Bruno Buchberger, the mathematician who discovered the first algorithm to compute Gröbner bases. Gröbner bases have become quite important in mathematics lately, and conceptually they are also rather simple. In fact, one can view them as a generalization of something we learn in Algebra II (Gaussian elimination for linear systems, if you remember it). Its simplicity is precisely why I'm not going to tell you anything about them right now. I've got a program, and they're not on it.

Last year was the 40th anniversary of his discovery, so this is somewhat appropriate. It began in February and runs through July. I don't think that most people are attending for that entire time; instead, they're doing what I'm doing and visiting one or two weeks to attend some workshops, meet other people who research Gröbner bases, and do some research.

I've arrived in the middle of one workshop on Efficient Computation of Gröbner Bases. Today was the day when a group of French mathematicians had the opportunity to show off their work — and it's fantastic work. They are part of the SALSA group at INRIA.

I didn't want to talk much about that, however. I wanted to describe Linz briefly.

Around Linz lie mountains, or hills at least. Right now the hills are blanketed with snow, above which stand tall trees. (Pines? not sure.) You can imagine how nice it is to look out my hotel window and see that.

Most of the homes are an interesting architecture; they are well-kept and nicely decorated. I don't know how to describe them, except to say that they certainly feel Austrian. Many of them had bona-fide sunrooms, and look cozy.

The airport is small, and people began puffing their cigarettes the moment they left the plane, filling the baggage area with a terrible stench. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long for my bags. The bus came on time (how can this nation border Italy?!?) and carried me to the train station, where I caught a tram to the University.

The trip was scenic. I've already mentioned the houses that fill the suburbs; the city center was also a sight to behold. The small shops sat side-by-side, and had a fine European feel to them. Many of them left their doors open, also in the finest European tradition. I've noticed this in Italy and Russia, too. I've never understood how European companies can keep their costs low while the heat (or air conditioning) literally flies out the door. Most American stores keep their doors shut tight.

So Linz looks gorgeous, at least from the shuttle bus and the #2 tram. Meanwhile, RICAM has all the feel of a real, live research institute. Everywhere I go, people are working on things. It would be heaven, except that it's intimidating to be surrounded by so many people who are so much smarter than I am. (I get that feeling at most university or research institute I visit, including my place of employment. However, I think RICAM alone has more professors than my employer, and they have more professors of computational mathematics than anyplace I've been, with the possible exception of the university where I earned my PhD.)

I may sound like a kid in a candy store, and to an extent I am. It's true that a couple of today's talks were less than enthralling, and I had some troubles getting here which we won't mention. I miss my family a lot more than I expected, too. But I didn't fall asleep during the talks, despite the change in timezone, and how could I? Mathematics is all around me!

True, some of my students would recoil in horror at such a sentiment. Heck, most of my readers probably recoiled in horror just now... :-)


Elliot said...

"the heat (or air conditioning) literally flies out the door."

And don't flies and mosquitos fly in?

I guess you could view 'being surrounded by smarter people' as a Lenten opportunity for humility. (Though I bet a lot of them are thinking the same thing about you.)

jack perry said...

And don't flies and mosquitos fly in?

It's an interesting phenomenon that neither in Gaeta nor in Kazan are there very many mosquitoes. Kazan is simply too cold, but as for Gaeta, I don't recall being bit by mosquitoes unless I'm standing on the rocks at dusk.

My mother's another story; both Italian and American mosquitoes seem to sniff her out regardless of where she stands... :-)

I bet a lot of them are thinking the same thing about you.

I don't (yet) have any published papers. The only ones who know me are the ones who are more established in the field, and don't think abotu them. In fact, I believe there are only two people here who know my work: my former advisor, and the organizer of the conference.

I like the anonymity quite a bit, but it's not exactly helpful for one's career.