Lately I have had the opportunity to attend a large number of research talks, and I find myself asking – what is their purpose?
The naive view is that they are intended to report upon new results and methods, to spread knowledge etc etc, but anyone who does mathematics knows that none of these things is really possible in 45 minutes.
What usually happens, at least on the surface, is a kind of jumbled stream of consciousness, completely indecipherable except maybe to the collaborators of the speaker, and then applause, followed by random questions (or uneasy silence), and more applause.
And yet I can’t say that I haven’t gained anything from attending talks. Somehow in the half stupor which sets in about ten minutes after the basic theory has been “recalled”, some ideas seep into the subconscious mind and alter the course of at least some of the listeners’ (using the term very loosely) research.
As the poet says:
There are hidden things,
We will not grasp nor know
Sometimes it is better
Not to wonder at all.