Music and lyrics
I attended a talk today by Adriano Garsia, which was part of the MIT combinatorics seminar. It was called “A New Recursion in the Theory of Macdonald Polynomials”, and while I didn’t know what Macdonald polynomials were, I went to the talk anyway, because I like polynomials and I like recursion and I like combinatorics (but primarily because it was a way of procrastinating). :-)
Even though I understood almost nothing of the deep mathematics in the talk (and still don’t exactly know what Macdonald polynomials are), it was a very pleasant and refreshing talk, and I felt very good after hearing it. The reason is that it had, of all the talks I’ve attended in recent memory, probably the best “music”. What does that mean? As Prof. Doron Zeilberger invented the term:
Human beings have bodies and souls. Computers have hardware and software, and math talks have lyrics and music. Most math talks have very hard-to-follow lyrics, [...]
But like a good song, and a good opera, you can still enjoy it if the music is good. The “music” in a math talk is the speaker’s enthusiasm, body-language, and off-the-cuff heuristic explanations.
Sometimes you can recognize a familiar word, and relate it to something of your own experience, whether or not the meaning that you attribute to it is what the speaker meant, and this can also enhance your enjoyment.
And so it was with this talk. Prof. Garsia clearly loved the subject, and even someone like me who had no idea what’s going on felt compelled to listen, fascinated. He told us how the problem came about (“long relationship with Jim Haglund: he makes brilliant conjectures and I prove them”), of false proofs they had had, of how their current proof was driven by heuristics and unproven conjectures, he even posed a problem and offered a $100 reward for an elementary/combinatorial proof. :-)
Far better than the talks with bad music and bad lyrics. (It also helped that although I couldn’t understand the lyrics, they sounded nice: permutations, Young tableaux, polynomials defined in terms of them…)