The American Mathematical Society is big; so is the Mathematical Association of America. Once a year, these giant organizations have a meeting welcoming all members of both organizations. This year there were over 6000 registered participants. That’s a lot of mathematicians!
The meeting is so big, it’s almost too big for some of us shy people. It’s surprisingly easy to get lost in a crowd. Thus, it had been more than 10 years since I had been to one of these mammoth events. To my surprise, I found it friendly and inviting. I knew several people, accidentally ran into a few others (this was wonderful) and met many people as well. The exhibits were excellent and inspiring. The undergraduate poster session had more than 400 posters. The students I talked to about their work were all impressive, even outstanding.
I was there for a purpose, giving a talk at a special session (on this preprint). At this kind of conference, there are always many, many things going on at the same time. It’s possible to go to your little area and not much else. Fortunately, my stay outlasted my special session, so I had lots of opportunities to look around. There are plenary talks and award winning talks, intended for the widest possible audience. But instead of going to these, I deliberately went to small sessions; talks here and there, partly randomly, partly to see what other people in completely different areas talk about, and how they talk about it. By way of analogy, consider a tourist, who can certainly do touristy things, but it’s much more fun to mingle with the local people. The small sessions gave me some nice insights as to what people are doing and how hard everyone is trying. Some of these sessions were close to my interests and others were completely new. This type of exploration is rarely possible at a small, specialized conference. I wish I had talked to more people after their talks. I won’t wait ten years again!
P.S. On the day I returned home, my flight was delayed by a few hours. I decided to just stay at the airport. I had work to do, and no distractions. The airport was crowded (many flights were delayed). To my pleasant surprise, I met three people at the airport who had been at the meetings, including two people who sat down beside me at different times, asking if I was a mathematician–two of them were people whose talks I had attended!