Larry Hosken. Technical writer. Puzzlehunt enthusiast.
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Venezuelan Navy Ship Sinks After Collision with Expedition Cruise Ship

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A Venezuelan Navy ship has sunk after colliding with the ice-strengthened hull of an expedition cruise ship earlier this week.  The incident took place March 30, 2020 in international waters off the island of La Tortuga.  Both sides are now blaming each other for the accident.  Columbia Cruise Services says its expedition vessel RCGS Resolute […]
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4 days ago
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Economic Cost of Flattening the Curve

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Eline van den Broek-Altenburg, PhD, has served as a health policy advisor in the Dutch and European parliaments and is currently an assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. Follow her on Twitter at @E_line and #ReDoTheMath.

Adam Atherly, PhD, is a professor and director of the Center for Health Services Research at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. Twitter: @AdamAtherly

While a growing number of people are starting to understand the message of the intuitive picture of “Flattening The Curve”, some health economists are starting to wonder how flat the curve should actually be for the benefits to exceed the costs. Since the graph went viral on social media on February 28, media and citizens alike are calling for a slowing down of the spread of COVID-19. (The curve was first published in a 2007 paper by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC].)

But how does the economic cost of the flattening fit into the discussion? The New York Times reported that the “self-quarantine” decision by both the U.S. and the U.K. government was hugely influenced by an epidemiological study from Imperial College. That study didn’t consider the cost of the different policy options — just the health impacts. The value of policies with health impacts are typically compared to their cost using a standard “cost effectiveness” framework. Below, we use publicly available data to calculate the cost effectiveness of the flattening the curve.

The Cost Effectiveness of the Self-Quarantine

When considering the value of a healthcare intervention to inform decision-making, benefits are usually measured in terms of life years gained, with the life years adjusted for the “quality” of the life (using standard formulas) to create a “Quality Adjusted Life Year” or QALY. For an intervention, the QALYs gained are added up and adjusted for differences in when the gains occur.

One of the key numbers in these models is the number of years of life a typical person will be expected to survive. This is why interventions in younger populations will typically yield more QALYs than interventions in older populations: because younger people have longer life expectancy. The formula for QALY calculation is:

Years of Life x Utility Value = #QALYs

where Utility Value is a number between 0 and 1 that captures the average quality of life during those years (1 for perfect health and lower for worse states of health).

Heath systems then compare the QALYs gained to the cost and calculate a cost per QALY gained. In the United States, interventions that cost less than $100,000 per QALY gained are often considered “cost effective,” although the precise number is somewhat controversial. The National Health Service in the U.K. often uses 30,000 pounds per QALY as a benchmark, although there is nuance in the precise threshold.

So, is the current “stay at home” and social isolation-policy, with school closed and businesses shuttered, cost effective using the standard health economics framework?

Calculate the Gains

The years of life-gains are relatively straightforward. Even if we are suspicious of death rates and incidence rates currently being reported (because we do not know how accurate the denominators of those ratios are), statistics on the people who died of COVID19 in China and Italy are the best source of currently available data. The Italian National Health Institute pegged the median age of death from COVID-19 in Italy at 80.5. This is consistent with early data from the United States.

(Note that studies of this type typically use means rather than medians. We did not find any data we felt was reliable with mean age of death. However, the reported age distributions suggest that the mean and median should be reasonable close).

The average 80-year old in the United States has a life expectancy of about 9 years, suggesting that on average, a death averted will “buy” 9 extra years of life. In QALY-estimations, this number needs to be adjusted for the “quality of the years”. In Italy, 99% of deaths had an underlying pathology that needs to be incorporated in QALY adjustments. If we use diabetes as a reasonable proxy for the many chronic diseases, we would adjust the 9 years down to 7.8 years or QALYs. In other words: the average loss per person of quality-adjusted life years is 7.8.

The last ingredient we need to calculate the QALY-gains is also the most controversial of data reporting of the past few weeks: the number of deaths. When we multiply 7.8 with the number of people who will die, we get the QALY loss. According to a CDC scenario analysis, the expected range of deaths is from 200,000 to 1.7 million people. This implies the pandemic, if unchecked, will lead to a loss of between 1.56 million and 13.26 million QALYs.

Calculate the Costs

What, then, is the cost of the intervention of social distancing? One easy estimate would be to use the cost of the current stimulus bill before congress — 1 trillion dollars. This is likely an underestimate of the true cost, but is a reasonable starting place. If the stimulus becomes 4 trillion dollars, the cost per QALY gained will be significantly higher. In the figure below we show the ranges we calculated for the two scenarios.

We calculated the cost per QALY gained from the current approach to be somewhere between approximately $75,000 and $650,000. We did this by dividing the planned stimulus package by the QALYs gain we estimated. This is somewhere between reasonably cost effective and clearly not a wise investment if we used the conventional standard cut-off point of $100,000 per life year gained. If the total investment was $4 trillion, the cost per QALY gained would rise to a range of $300,000 to $2.5 million per QALY gained — an expenditure far out of line from other healthcare investments.

Why haven’t these numbers been publicly calculated and debated?

Now, this “health economics 101” version of doing the math is of course far from perfect which is largely due to the uncertainty around the data inputs. In particular, the key variable is the expected number of deaths. A pandemic that is likely to lead to 1.7 million deaths can justify the enormous public costs. However, if the pandemic is in the lower end of the predicted range, then the public funds would have been more valuable if spent elsewhere.  One important element of this is the uncertainty (risk) about how infections and deadly COVID-19 will ultimately be, which might make it rational to be more cautious than one might be ordinarily. This emphasizes that one priority should be the rapid collection of additional data and updates to prediction models.

Some claim it is impossible or even unethical in times of a crisis, to think about cost when lives are involved. But in a world of finite resources, it’s necessary to make choices. Why not use a framework that has been defended by governments and scientists for decades to justify treatment and health reimbursement systems’ decisions to not pay for life saving treatments? The entire point of the exercise is to help make hard choices systematically based on data.

In theory, if decision rules like cost effectiveness represent sensible approaches to making policy choices, health economists should be out front helping guide policy. Our calculations suggest that current strategies will be cost effective only if the predicted mortality rates are at the top of the predicted range and costs are at the bottom of the range – a combination of worst care / best case that is unlikely. Consideration of targeted mitigation strategies that minimize the economic cost while protecting the most vulnerable are warranted.

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15 days ago
Article about how health economists figure out when it might make sense to stop staying home.

tl;dr If you're wildly optimistic about a disease's deadliness, you'll choose wrong.
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Your COVID-19 thoughts are not crazy

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I’ve spent the last several days having conversations with various colleagues, friends, and family members about the COVID-19 pandemic. The one general truth about all these conversations is this: People are in different places emotionally and thinking about different facets of the crisis.

Some are more-or-less in step with the media narrative, which is generally short-term focused. (I say this without judgement. This is fine.) They are upset, and upset in particular about the challenges of disruption to daily routines for them and their families. They are concerned with the response of politicians, local and national. All natural. All normal. Those in this place have the advantage that many, many others are with them. This is a shared experience.

Then there are some that are thinking beyond the immediate. Some are thinking a few weeks to months ahead. What happens if school is closed for the year? What happens when family or friends get sick, even die?

Some are thinking many months ahead. How do we get to herd immunity safely? How long until people cannot tolerate staying in their homes, working from home? Will this unwind gracefully or badly? What about next school year? What about the election? And so on.

This is also normal, but people thinking much further ahead may feel much more isolated with their thoughts because it’s not where the most others or the media seem to be (yet). I have spoke to several people who don’t know what to do with these thoughts. They feel they cannot articulate them on Twitter. They worry they’re too speculative. They feel their family or friends can’t handle them or don’t want to hear them.

I do, and I’ve spoken about them in individual conversations. But my point isn’t to articulate those concerns here, but just to say that it is OK to have these thoughts. You are not crazy to worry about the future and future problems just because few others seem to be. I assure you, many are, they just aren’t saying so.

It is important not to be and feel alone in this crisis. Find someone to talk to about all your concerns, but naturally don’t freak anyone out who isn’t ready. Use your community and resources as best you can. Seek professional help as you need it. You are welcome to email or tweet them at me, if nothing else.

This is hard. You are not crazy. You are not alone.


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20 days ago
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Trump FEC Nominee With Ties to Thomas Hofeller Bragged About Working on Unconstitutional Texas Gerrymander — Then Denied It

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On Tuesday, the Senate held a confirmation hearing for President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Federal Election Commission, James “Trey” Trainor. During the hearing, Trainor denied his role in a 2003 gerrymandering effort in Texas.

Trainor’s own resume says he was “intimately involved” in Texas’s 2003 redistricting, a point that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., made during Tuesday’s hearing. Trainor faced criticisms that he was not being forthright about his role as chief of staff to a Texas legislator who co-authored the redistricting bill and worked to push it through.

Senate Democrats also pressed Trainor, a conservative lawyer who had worked for the Texas secretary of state, on his connections to Thomas Hofeller, a longtime strategist for the Republican National Committee and the architect of racial gerrymanders in states including Florida, Alabama, West Virginia, and Texas. Many of those plans were found unconstitutional in recent years. According to files obtained by The Intercept, Trainor also worked with Hofeller between 2011 and 2013.

“Mr. Trainor has a long career as a conservative political operative,” Schumer said at Tuesday’s hearing. “He has worked closely with Thomas Hofeller, notorious for masterminding Republican gerrymandering schemes, to redraw maps that significantly disenfranchise minority voters at the local level. Mr. Trainor’s former law firm described him as being ‘intimately involved’ in Texas’s 2003 redistricting, which the Supreme Court deemed in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Mr. Trainor has argued the Voting Rights Act has become a political tool.”

Schumer said the FEC nomination was crucial given the upcoming November presidential election, adding that Trainor’s record raises “significant questions about his fitness to carry out the commission’s anti-corruption mandate.”

According to the Congressional Research Service, 42 of the 47 historical FEC nominees have been confirmed by the Senate through a bipartisan process, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Tuesday. “Abandoning bipartisan norms and pushing forward a controversial nominee is not the way to do it,” Klobuchar said, suggesting that a Democratic nominee should be considered simultaneously.

Cortez Masto, for her part, dove deep into links between Trainor’s redistricting work for legislators and the Texas secretary of state’s office, where he defended redistricting maps against lawsuits. The Supreme Court struck down part of Texas’s 2003 plan, which Trainor’s resume indicates he worked on, in 2006. At first, Trainor denied the extent of his role in that work.

“I appreciate your testimony here today,” Cortez Masto said, after pointing out inconsistencies between Trainor’s public record and his remarks in the hearings. “I do think it is doing a disservice to the truth here.” She suggested that she would oppose his nomination to the FEC.

Hofeller, the gerrymandering mastermind, died in 2018. A review of thousands of files found on his hard drive showed how Republican mapmakers “experimented with using race as the primary factor in drawing districts in these states,” a strategy that is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. In January, Stephanie Hofeller, his daughter, released files saved on his hard drives publicly onto a website called “The Hofeller Files,” despite Republican state lawmakers’ efforts to keep some of those documents from becoming public.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Trainor praised Hofeller in response to Democrats’ questions. “God rest his soul,” Trainor said. “He is a well-recognized expert in the field.”

Hofeller has not always been forthcoming about his work with state officials on redistricting cases. In a 2013 affidavit submitted during a Florida case against the state’s 2012 redistricting plan, Hofeller failed to disclose his involvement with individuals working on the redistricting. The court ruled that GOP consultants’ documents could be considered in other trials related to the redistricting.

Trainor praised Hofeller in response to Democrats’ questions. “God rest his soul,” Trainor said. “He is a well-recognized expert in the field.”

Eventually, Florida Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis in 2014 invalidated the state’s congressional redistricting plan, writing that the map selection process “provided the means by which partisan maps, secretly drawn and submitted by political operatives, could be incorporated into the enacted map with no one in the general public the wiser.” In other states, links between Hofeller and state officials have come to light in court cases where his redistricting work was challenged.

Senate Rules Committee Chair Roy Blunt, R-Mo., asked Trainor if he had worked on or defended any redistricting maps, and if courts had struck down any maps he’d defended. Trainor said he’d worked on three Texas redistricting cases as legal counsel for the Texas secretary of state and that none of the maps he worked on were struck down. “I had a client that I represented their interest in,” Trainor said. “And I hope that we would not impute to the lawyer the acts of the client. But, in all three cases, the courts have upheld the maps I worked on.”

Maps he worked on years later with Hofeller, however, were rejected before they even took effect. According to files obtained by The Intercept, Trainor worked closely with Hofeller and his partner, Dale Oldham, in the 2011 redistricting of Texas’s Nueces County. At the time, Trainor was an attorney at Beirne, Maynard & Parsons, and Hofeller sent him an invoice for work on the county’s redistricting. Texas’s 2011 redistricting maps, including the redrawn Nueces County, were later found to be drawn with discriminatory intent, The Intercept reported, and reworked maps were the subject of Abbott v. Perez, a Supreme Court case dealing with Texas’s redistricting following the 2010 Census.

In 2013, while still at Beirne, Maynard & Parsons, Trainor also defended Galveston County and Judge Mark Henry in a case challenging the 2011 districts. According to the files, Hofeller drew several of the county’s Justice of the Peace precincts while working for Galveston County legal counsel. Although the 2011 maps weren’t officially used, courts eventually found that they were drawn with intentional racial discrimination.

Cortez Masto, the Nevada Democrat, had the toughest questions for Trainor, asking him to explain discrepancies between his testimony — that he was not involved as a lawyer in redistricting — and an online resume for the law firm he works at, which boasts of Trainor’s role in the redistricting.

Cortez Masto began by raising a 2003 Texas redistricting map that the Supreme Court had ruled violated the Voting Rights Act. “My understanding is that you were involved in that plan in 2003,’ she said. “You coordinated the maps and legal aspects of passage, and Department of Justice preclearance of HB3” — a 2003 redistricting bill in the Texas legislature. “Is that correct?”

Trainor responded that it was not correct, explaining that he was a staffer at the time for Texas state Rep. Phil King — the author of the redistricting bill — and not a lawyer, since he was not yet licensed to give legal advice. Cortez Masto — who would later clarify that not only was Trainor a staffer, but he was King’s chief of staff — pressed Trainor on his role in the process. According to his LinkedIn profile, Trainor was King’s chief for more than six years, from December 1998 to July 2005.

“Obviously, I worked closely with him to help bring in individuals that he needed advice from to work on the effort,” Trainor said. “I helped to coordinate those type of meetings for him, just like — just like your staff I’m sure.”

“Did you help design the legislative districts adopted for the 2002 elections?” Cortez Masto said.

“No,” Trainor said.

“You did not?”


“So I guess I’m confused then,” Cortez Masto said. She then began to read from his resume, posted online by his former law firm. “It says that ‘Trainor has been intimately involved in Texas redistricting, helping to design the Texas house legislative districts adopted for the 2002 elections. During the third-called special session of 2003, he coordinated the maps and legal aspects of passage and Department of Justice preclearance of HB3, the new congressional maps adopted for the 2004 election.’” Then Cortez Masto asked another question: “So is that statement as part of your resume, which is online for the firm that you worked for, inaccurate?”

Trainor blamed the text of his online resume on “some marketing licensed by marketing individuals at the firm.” He went on, “I did do coordinating efforts for the individuals who worked on the map. I spent time working with them, making sure that they had everything that they needed.” He added that he traveled with King to the Department of Justice for the preclearance meeting.

Cortez Masto parried the denials. “First of all, you’re chief of staff. We all have a chief of staff, we know what our chief of staff does,” she said, gesturing to her colleagues. “And for you to come back and say that what was on your resume was inaccurate and that you were not intimately involved, has concerns for me as somebody that I’m looking to appoint to the FEC.”

The post Trump FEC Nominee With Ties to Thomas Hofeller Bragged About Working on Unconstitutional Texas Gerrymander — Then Denied It appeared first on The Intercept.

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26 days ago
San Francisco, USA
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Busiest Port in U.S. Sees 23% Drop in Cargo Volumes in February

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port of los angeles cma cgmU.S. West Coast ports were already facing headwinds this year from the protracted U.S.-China Trade War. Then came the coronavirus.  On Tuesday, the Port of Los Angeles, the United States’ busiest port and a hub for Chinese imports, said February’s TEU volumes decreased 22.9% compared to last year to 544,037 TEUs.  Imports in February decreased […]
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28 days ago
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We Gather Together


In January I went to the Joint Mathematics Meetings, which were held in Denver for the first time ever. The main venue was the Colorado Convention Center, a building whose roof area, by my rough estimate, is well above a million square feet. Inside I found acres of patterned carpet, enough folding chairs to hold thousands of bottoms, and vast window­less “ballrooms” where no one waltzes (at least not during the math meetings).

Overhead view of downtown Denver with Colorado Convention Center and stadiums, from Google Maps.

The Colorado Convention Center is the dark gray blob at lower right. Based on a perusal of Google Maps, it appears to be the largest single roof in the city of Denver, and it would remain so even if the football stadium (lower left) or the baseball stadium (upper right) had a roof.

Wandering around in these cavernous spaces always leaves me feeling a little disoriented and dislocated. It’s not just that I’m lost, although often enough I am—searching for Lobby D, or Meeting Room 407, or a toilet. I’m also dumb­founded by the very existence of these huge empty boxes, monuments to the human urge to congregate. If you build it, we will come.

It seems every city needs such a place, commensurate with its civic stature or ambitions. It’s no mystery why the cities make the investment. The JMM attracted more than 5,500 mathematicians (plus a few interlopers like me). I would guess we each spent on the order of $1,000 in payments to hotels, restaurants, taxis, and such, and perhaps as much again on airfare and registration fees. The revenue flowing to the city and its businesses and citizens must be well above $5 million. Furthermore, from the city’s point of view it’s all free money; the visitors do not send their children to the local schools or add to the burden on other city services, and they don’t vote in Denver.

However, this calculation tells only half the story. Although visitors to the Colorado Convention Center leave wads of cash in Denver, at the same time Denver residents are flying off to meetings elsewhere, withdrawing funds from the local economy and spreading the money around in Phoenix, Seattle, or Boston. If the convention-going traffic is symmetrical, the exchange will come out even for everyone. So why don’t we all save ourselves a lot of bother—not to mention millions of dollars—and just stay home? From inside the convention center, you may not be able to tell what city you’re in anyway.

CCC wall art

Convention centers are not really all alike—not as much as Walmarts or Home Depots. In Denver some large-scale artwork caught my eye. I particularly admire the little red box that serves as a unifying element, like Harold’s purple crayon. Left: Detail of “I Know You Know That I Know,” by Sandra Fettingis. Right: Detail of “The Heavy is the Root of the Light,” by Mindy Bray.

While I was in Denver, I looked at the schedule of upcoming events for the convention center. A boat show was getting underway even as the mathematicians were still roaming the corridors, and tickets were also on sale for some sort of motorcycling event. The drillers and frackers were coming to town a few weeks later, and then in March the American Physical Society would hold its biggest annual gathering, with about twice as many participants as the JMM. The APS meeting was scheduled for this week, Monday through Friday (March 2–6). But late last Saturday night the organizers decided to cancel the entire conference because of the coronavirus threat. Some attendees were already in Denver or on their way.

I was taken aback by this decision, which is not to say I believe it was wrong. A year from now, if the world is still recovering from an epidemic that killed many thousands, the decisionmakers at the APS will be seen as prescient, prudent, and public-spirited. On the other hand, if Covid-19 sputters out in a few weeks, they may well be mocked as alarmists who succumbed to panic. But the latter judgment would be a little unfair. After all, the virus might be halted precisely because those 11,000 physicists stayed home.

I have not yet heard of other large scientific conferences shutting down, but a number of meetings in the tech industry have been called off, postponed, or gone virtual, along with some sports and entertainment events. The American Chemical Society is “monitoring developments” in advance of their big annual meeting, scheduled for later this month in Philadelphia. Even if the events go on, some prospective participants will not be able to attend. I’ve just received an email from Harvard with stern warnings and restrictions on university-related travel.

Presumably, the Covid-19 threat will run its course and dissipate, and life will return to something called normal. But it’s also possible we have a new normal, that we have crossed some sort of demographic or epidemiological threshold, and novel pathogens will be showing up more frequently. Furthermore, the biohazard is not the only reason to question the future of megameetings; the ecohazard may be even more compelling. My guestimate is based on numbers from I assume the average attendee flies 3,000 kilometers round trip on a 737-400 aircraft.Flying 11,000 physicists to Denver burns 1,200 tonnes of fuel and injects 3,800 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. R. R. Wilson, the founder of Fermilab, once declared that the most important invention for the progress of modern science was the Boeing 707. But that invention is now looking like part of the problem.

All in all, it seems an apt moment to reflect on the human urge to come together in these large, temporary encampments, where we share ideas, opinions, news, gossip—and perhaps viruses—before packing up and going home until next year. Can the custom be sustained? If not, what might replace it?

Mathematicians and physicists have not always formed roving hordes to plunder defenseless cities. Until the 20th century there weren’t enough of them to make a respectable motorcycle gang. Furthermore, they had no motorcycles, or any other way to travel long distances in a reasonable time.

Before the airplane and the railroad, meetings between scientists were generally one-on-one. Consider the sad story of Neils Henrik Abel, a young Norwegian mathematician in the 1820s. Feeling cut off from his European colleagues, he undertook a two-year-long trek from Oslo to Berlin and Paris, traveling almost entirely on foot. In Paris he visited Lagrange and Cauchy, who received him coolly and did not read his proof of the unsolvability of quintic equations. So Abel walked home again. Somewhere along the way he picked up a case of tuberculosis and died two years later, at age 27, impoverished and probably unaware that his work was finally beginning to be noticed. I like to think the outcome would have been happier if he’d been able to present his results in a contributed-paper session at the JMM.

For Abel, the take-a-hike model of scholarly communication proved ineffective; perhaps more important, it doesn’t scale well. If everyone must make individual tête-à-tête visits, then forming connections between \(n\) scientists would require \(n(n - 1) / 2\) trips. Having everyone converge at a central point reduces the number to \(n\). From this point of view, the modern mass meeting looks not like a travel extravagance but like a strategy for minimizing total air miles. Still, staying home would be even more frugal, whether the cost is measured in dollars, kelvins, or epidemiological risk.

Most of the big disciplinary conferences got their start toward the end of the 19th century, and by the 1930s and 40s had hundreds of participants. Writing about mathematical life in that era, Ralph Boas notes: “One reason for going to meetings was that photocopying hadn’t been invented; it was at meetings that one found out what was going on.” But now photocopying has been invented—and superseded. There’s no need for a cross-country trip to find out what’s new; on any weekday morning you can just check the arXiv. Yet attendance at these meetings is up by another order of magnitude.

Even in a world with faster channels of communication, there are still moments of high excitement in the big convention halls. At the 1987 March meeting of the APS, the recent discovery of high-temperature superconductivity in cuprate ceramics was presented and discussed in a lively session that lasted past 3 a.m. The event is known as the Woodstock of Physics. I missed it—as well as the original Woodstock. But I was at the JMM in 2014 when progress toward confirming the twin prime conjecture caused a big stir. The conjecture (still unproved) says there are infinitely many pairs of prime numbers, such as 11 and 13, separated by exactly 2. Yiting Zhang had just proved there are infinitely many primes separated by no more than 70 million. Several talks discussed this finding and followup work by others, and Zhang himself spoke to a packed room.

Zhang and audience JMM 2014

Yiting Zhang and his audience.

Boas emphasized the motive of hearing what’s new, but one must not ignore the equally important impulse to tell what’s new. At the recent JMM, with its 5,500 visitors, the book of abstracts listed 2,529 presentations. In other words, almost half the visitors came to deliver a talk, which is probably a stronger motivation than hearing what others have to say. (When I first saw those numbers, I had the thought: “So, on average every presentation had one speaker and one listener.” The truth is not quite as bad as that, but it’s still worth keeping in mind that a meeting of this kind is not like a rock concert or a football game, with only a dozen or so performers and thousands in the audience.)

At some gatherings, the aim is not so much to talk about math and science but to do it. Groups of three or four huddle around blackboards or whiteboards, collaborating. But this activity is commoner at small, narrowly focused meetings—maybe at Aspen for the physicists or Banff for the mathematicians. No doubt such things also happen at the bigger meetings, but they are not a major item on the agenda for most attendees.

For one subpopulation of meeting-goers the main motivation is very practical: getting a job. Again this is a matter of efficiency. Someone looking for a postdoc position can arrange a dozen interviews at a single meeting.

There are many reasons to make the prilgrimmage to the Colorado Convention Center, but I think the most important factor is yet to be stated. Dennis Flanagan, who was my employer, friend, and mentor many years ago at Scientific American, wrote that “science is intensely social.”

Flanagan’s Version, 1988, p. 15.In an active scientific discipline everyone knows everyone else, if not in person, then by their writings and reputation. Scientists attend at least as many meetings and conventions as salesmen.

You might interpret this comment as saying that scientists—like salesmen—are a bunch of genial, gregarious party animals who like to go out on the town, drink to excess, and misbehave. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what Dennis had in mind. He was arguing that social interactions are essential to the process of science. Becoming a mathematician or a physicist is tantamount to joining a club, and you can’t do that in isolation. You have to absorb the customs, the tastes, the values of the culture. For example, you need to internalize the community standard for deciding what is true. (It’s rather different in physics and mathematics.) Even subtler is the standard for deciding what is interesting—what ideas are worth pursuing, what problems are worth solving.

Meetings and conferences are not the only way of inculcating culture; the apprenticeship system known as graduate school is clearly more imporant overall. Still, discipline-wide gatherings have a role. By their very nature they are more cosmopolitan than any one university department. They acquaint you with the norms of the population but also with the range of variance, and thereby improve the probability that you’ll figure out where you fit in.

The quintessential big-meeting event is running into someone in the hallway whom you see only once a year. You stop and shake hands, or even hug. (In future we’ll bump elbows.) You’re both in a hurry. If you chat too long, you’ll miss the opening sentences of the next talk, which may be the only sentences you’ll understand. So the exchange of words is brief and unlikely to be deep. As I and my cohort grow older, it often amounts to little more than, “Wow. I’m still alive and so are you!” But sometimes it’s worth traveling a thousand miles to get that human validation.

If we have to dispense with such gatherings, science and math will muddle through somehow. We’ll meet more in the sanitary realm of bits and pixels, less in this fraught environment of atoms. We’ll become more hierarchical, with greater emphasis on local meetings and less on national and international ones. The alternatives can be made to work, and the next generation will view them as perfectly natural, if not inevitable. But I’m going to miss the ugly carpet, the uncomfortable folding chairs, and the ballrooms where nobody dances.

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32 days ago
San Francisco, USA
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