Entrance hall of the ICMSGeometric Rigidity theory and applications, May/June 2016

In May/June 2016, ICMS hosted a workshop on Geometric Rigidity Theory and Applications

Geometric Rigidity Theory is concerned with the study of bar-joint frameworks and related constraint systems of geometric objects. Delegates at this workshop had a busy week, with 33 talks throughout the week and a public lecture by Patrick Fowler (University of Sheffield), Symmetry in chemistry and engineering: Maxwell still going strong at 185. The talk attendees had fun playing with the toys!


As the public lecture suggests, this workshop has strong links with James Clerk Maxwell and many of the delegates were able to enjoy a trip to Maxwell’s birthplace, and former home of ICMS, in the Edinburgh New Town.  They were also able to enjoy the Maxwell walking tour, courtesy of the Maxwell Foundation, in the Edinburgh sunshine.

 Delegates at the Geometric Rigidity Theory and Applications Workshop, 2016


Whilst the workshop was on, we took the opportunity to speak to the delegates in a bit more detail.

Wai Yeung Lam, Technische Universität Berlin






Wai Yeung Lam was born and grew up in Hong Kong, where he completed his Bachelor’s degree.  He was interested in Physics and completed in the Physics Olympics before deciding to study maths.  He moved to Berlin where he completed his masters and is about to finish his PhD.  He enjoys living in a big city, but misses Hong Kong, especially, friends, food and the language. 

What were expecting when you signed up for this event and what have you got out of it so far?

I expected to learn about lots of new work.  As geometer I enjoyed hearing from the physicists, chemists, engineers as well as other areas of maths, e.g. combinatorics.  The diverse nature of the workshop participants has worked really well.

What have you found most enjoyable about the week so far?

The public lecture by Patrick Fowler and the Maxwell Walking tour in the Edinburgh sunshine were a lot of fun.

How does participating in this workshop differ from your normal day as a mathematician?

They are quite different.  On a normal day, at the university, there is teaching and admin to deal with.  Here at the workshop, I am devoting my time to my research and hearing about new problems and gaining inspiration for future work.

Have you met interesting people?


What new connections have you made? 

I’ve made many new contacts and been able to chat about common areas of interest.

What might this lead to? 

I’m moving to the US, Brown University, to start a post-doc position in a couple of months and I’m hoping to catch up with some of the new contacts once I get there.

Have you been to many other events?

Last year I was at meetings at Oberwolfach and Banff.  The set ups are different – at Overwolfach the workshop and accommodation are co-located and the venue is quite isolated.  Here there is more of chance to have some time away from the workshop.  Both approaches work, they are just very different.

Who is your favourite mathematician and why?

Henri Poincare.  I read his book, the Value of Science, it detailed his approach and thoughts and how it worked for him.  I found it really inspiring and have benefitted a lot from reading that book.

If you could solve one maths problem what would it be?

Riemann Hypothesis

Do you prefer blackboard or powerpoint?

PowerPoint.  As a geometer I want to show pictures!  I also find recordings from meetings like this very useful and a powerful resource.


Jessica Sidman, Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, USA






Jessica Sidman is a Professor at Mount Holyoke a small liberal arts college for women in Massachusetts (USA). Liberal arts colleges exist mostly in the USA and focus on largely teaching but Mount Holyoke is pretty much unique as a research liberal arts college.

Tell me a bit about your background

I started out in algebraic geometry – this is a story we love to tell – Audrey St John (who’s also at this conference and at Mount Holyoke) and works in computer science was supervising an undergraduate senior thesis on protein folding. They had some questions about projective space and they came to ask me about them. I asked why they were thinking about that and that’s how our collaboration started. I got into rigidity theory through this undergraduate thesis work.

What brought you to ICMS – what did you expect to find at this workshop?

Well, I’d been to ICMS last year – this year is just as good but with better weather! What I like about interacting with the rigidity theory community is that it is a very interdisciplinary group – there are mathematicians, there are computer scientists, there are people coming from industry, mechanical engineers. I guess what I was hoping was, from the more applied part of the community, the engineering part, I might learn of some new problems. And, since I come from an algebraic background and rigidity theory is a new thing, I wanted the throw out some ideas I’ve been having to the community.

Do you think this will lead to new collaborations?

I hope so. I’ve talked to some people about their talks and people approached me after my talk and I think there are some interesting connections, seeing ways that algebra can be used.

How does participating in a workshop like this differ from your normal day as a mathematician? Obviously it’s different because you’re meeting a different community but is it also a glorious respite, for instance?

You know, someone once told me that the definition of a mathematician was someone who teaches calculus. There is so much teaching in my day to day life so coming here is a time really to think about problems and get new problems to bring back and keep me going for the year. Now I also approach them from a different point of view and am looking for problems for undergraduates.

Have you been to many other events? Apart from ICMS events, do you go to many workshops or conferences?

With the kind of job I have it’s hard for me to go away during semester. I go to probably a couple a year. In the US there’s the American Institute of Math, I went to one recently there. These workshops that are a week long, with about 40 people, are really my favourite events. You can really have conversations and that’s the most important thing. No parallel sessions in different rooms and it’s really a community where you all go to tea together, that really makes a big difference. The set up downstairs is really good because there are chalkboards and a quiet room with chalkboards so you really can just stop and talk about maths.

If you could solve one great maths problem what would it be?

It would be something called the Eisenbud-Goto Conjecture in algebraic geometry. It’s a mixture of algebra, geometry and computation - does the geometry tell you something about how hard the algebra is?
[Editor's Note: This interview was conducted in May 2016. Shortly afterwards, the Eisenbud-Goto Conjecture was disproved by Jason McCullough and Irena Peeva after being open for over 30 year.]

You talked earlier about working at a women’s college and I’d like to ask you about increasing diversity in mathematics. Have you any thoughts on that you’d like to share?

That’s a really good question! I think a lot of people would say working on hiring faculty and people who will be mentoring is important. It will be hard inspire and keep momentum going with the mentors already being there. Working on being supportive and reaching out to people too – there are little things that can make a huge difference. When I had just finished [my studies] I had applied for a grant and been rejected. Then I went to an algebraic geometry conference and a mathematician I’d never met before (but quite well known) came up to me at breakfast and asked if he could eat with me. He said “I’ve been wanting to meet you. I really think you should apply for one of these grants. We’re looking for people at colleges…” So I did and I got it and I never would have done it [without that encouragement]. It was a little thing, it didn’t cost anyone money, but it made a huge difference to me. Taking the time to reach out can make a huge difference. I think there’s a lot of room for institutions to think about institutional change and mentoring programmes too.

Now for a couple of lighthearted questions. Firstly, who is your favourite mathematician and why? – living, dead, famous, obscure, it’s your choice.

Ooh! – my favourite mathematician? Hmm, if I said a living one it could almost be dangerous! I choose Emmy Noether because I do algebraic geometry and it’s one of the few disciplines in mathematics that, at least partially, has a mathematical mother. I use her work in my work and with students.

Do you prefer blackboard or Powerpoint?

I gave a short talk here and gave a slide presentation but I prefer chalkboard. You can see mathematics unfold, in a way you can see people thinking as they write on a chalkboard. It’s just so different. You feel like you’re seeing mathematics happen.


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