The Essence of the HLF, in One Story

At most scientific conferences, you find a cross-section of ages: elder statesmen, rising stars, mid-career workhorses, maturing postdocs, and fresh-faced PhD candidates. The HLF brings together the two extremes: the most legendary of the legends, and the most bright-eyed of the youngsters.

What do such disparate groups have to talk about?

A lot, it turns out.

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During the opening ceremony, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon—the president of the European Research Council—told a story from his own days as a young mathematician.

“In 1973, I was spending the summer at Stanford University,” he explained. Fancy post at a prestigious university—he must have been pretty cocksure? Not exactly. He felt like most young researchers: a little anxious, a little unsure.

“At that time,” he admits, “I had not produced much.”

Then, out of the blue, he got a lunch invitation from an eminent researcher across the bay at UC Berkeley. He was dumbfounded by his good luck. “I started to wonder why on earth this world-famous mathematician would want to talk to me,” Bourguignon said. “I had met him briefly, only once.”

When he got to the lunch date, he found out: “He was simply curious to know what my projects were.”

A casual gesture from the world-class researcher—but a transformative moment for this young scholar. “Maybe,” Bourguignon reflected afterwards, “what I was trying to do had some value after all.”

And what did the eminent scholar get out of it? Lots, apparently! He often made similar invitations to young researchers. Their fresh and daring thoughts nourished his mature, considered ones.

That’s the HLF, in a nutshell: bringing the youngsters and the legends together, for the enrichment of both.

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Ben Orlin

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is a math teacher. He blogs at Math with Bad Drawings and is currently working on two books for the publisher Black Dog & Leventhal. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, Business Insider, the Chicago Tribune, and the Huffington Post.

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