Looking back on this year’s Heidelberg Laureate Forum, what comes to mind are less the separate talks – splendid though a number of them were – but the connections. A key characteristic of the HLF, after all, is that you are not getting to hear a nice talk, and then have a long time to ponder its implications. With the exception of Wednesday – institute excursions and boat trip – it’s a barrage of talks, and some of them connect in interesting or weird ways.
Some of the connections were anti-parallel. I remember sitting through the talk I liked least of all this HLF – Joseph Sifakis’s “Is computing a science?” – and wondered whether I should write a really critical review, listing all those of Sifakis’s arguments I found problematic or unconvincing. But as it turned out, I needed only to wait a bit, and the matter would take care of itself – Leslie Lamport’s talk on how to write mathematical proofs, with its emphasis on clarity and solid definitions, and its contrast with Sifakis vague generalizations did the job much better than any blog article of mine could have, even though there was (of course) no direct reference to Sifakis.
Some of the connections were supportive rather than anti-parallel. Had Gerd Faltings’ Friday morning talk on Diophantine equations stood on its own, it would have sailed fairly high above my head (just as Ngo’s “Number theory and the Langlands program” did). Fortunately, there had been Manjul Bhargava’s talk on rational points on elliptic and hyperelliptic curves the day before, an absolute highlight even in such exalted company: Bhargava managed to introduce a great number of key concepts about as pedagogical as I’ve ever seen, and to take even audience members with little or no previous knowledge right up to the cutting edge of his personal research area. Which, in turn, meant that I had a fighting chance with Faltings’ talk, which covered much of the same ground (though much faster).
Some of the connections were not between talks, but between the HLF subjects of mathematics and computer science and the rest of science (or even the world in general). I’ve written extensively about Martin Hairer’s research (part 1, part 2), which is directly connected with the physics of interfaces. Another connection to an area of physics that is very close to my hard came in a coffee break conversation with Ivan Sutherland (a pioneer of graphical user interfaces). Sutherland told me that, in his view, one of today’s key challenges for computer science was the problem of synchronizing what is happening on a large and complex chip – which is made difficult by the fact that the travel time of signals traveling to different part of the chip is of similar magnitude as the time it takes for the various processing steps. Which brings us directly from computer science to the foundations of special relativity.
HLF is fairly new – it’s only in its second year, and presumably, the laureates have not yet formed such a tight-knit community as have, or such is my impression, the regular attendees of the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting. And the organizer’s policy of allowing each laureate complete freedom in choosing his or her topic makes good sense. But if I could make a wish for future HLFs, it would be for the laureates to plan at least some deliberate connections between their talks – converging as well as diverging.
That said, it’s time for me to say good-bye to this year’s HLF – it’s been inspiring; my heartfelt thanks to the organizers and the attendees; I hope to be able to return next year to hear how the story continues!