It is just one word. Aussois. Probably unknown to many of you, it is the Mekka of those working in combinatorial optimization. Aussois is a small village (ok, when you click the link you will see it is actually a ski resort), hard to reach in the French Alps. Combinatorial optimizers of the world pilgrim there every year early in January. This year holds the 19th edition already. Search for #aussois2015 on twitter.
So, what is Aussois, or the “Aussois Combinatorial Optimization Workshop” as it is officially called? This is what the website says:
The workshop aims at putting together senior and young specialists in the field of discrete mathematical optimization to present and discuss their most recent research work in a relaxed and informal atmosphere.
About 120 professors, postdocs, and PhD students attend. Presentations are about integer programming, linear, non-linear, semidefinite, and other variants, graph theory, discrete optimization problems, and some talks are about applications, to mention only a few topics. But not everyone is presenting. You make a proposal, and you may be selected for one of the 46 slots. The program schedule is produced on a day-by-day basis and the next day is announced the evening before. This “Oberwolfach model” allows for having brand-new results or even answers to open problems posed during the week (but the latter happens extremely rarely).
As participation is by personal invitation only (“seniors” get invited and some of them are entitled to propose a “junior”), Aussois is a “club” for some, which it probably is to some extent, but it is not a closed shop. In particular because of “juniors”, there are new faces every year. But certainly, you have frequent attendees, some are there almost every year. If you belong to this group, Aussois is also “family” and arriving there on Sunday evening can even feel like coming home.
Do you have to be there? Well, that is a good question. Of course you don’t have to. Most of the results you can read in the journals of the field anyway. However, why would you attend conferences then in the first place? To meet people, of course.
Socializing, networking, and just having fun with your peers is key at scientific conferences.
These are your potential collaborators and co-authors, it is good to have conversation topics except nerd talk. Many became close friends (as we have in particular seen in a memorial session for Manfred Padberg who passed away too soon last year). Building relationships is facilitated by the fact that almost all, if not all, participants stay in the conference center.
As a “junior,” presenting in Aussois can also be a frightening experience: the audience is very demanding and the combinatorial optimization expert density is probably at a global maximum. So, you’d better perform. If your presentation contains a flaw someone will find it. On the other hand, it is a good opportunity to speak about your work, and make yourself known in front of the right crowd – as there is only a single stream of presentations, noone can escape, attendance discipline is typically quite high. Someone in the audience will probably review your manuscript submitted to journals or conferences, some may review your grant proposal, others may contribute to decisions about your tenure. When they like what you do it is a good sign. But by all means ignore if they don’t like what you do as long as you like what you do. Just push on.
As you can see on the workshop website several book publications arose from previous workshops. In a sense, the workshop serves as a “reference” in the field. The quality of presentations is typically extremely good, and even if a topic is not interesting to you, you may learn about different presentation styles and didactic approaches.
And then, of course, we have to mention skiing. There is a “lunch break” between 12.00 and 17.30 where most attendees work, discuss, or just relax. Some take the opportunity to ski for a couple of hours (I do), the lift is only a ten minutes’ walk away. In my opinion,
science and sports is an ideal combination.
I know it is pure luxury, but I think conferences benefit from containing some sports components. Soccer at the beach, swimming in the ocean, skiing in Aussois. Running works everywhere, and several conference attendees do. It is refreshing, communicative (you have to talk to the person sitting next to you in the ski lift!), and you are certainly in better shape for the next round of talks. And these talks are coming! After the lunch break, there are four presentations in the evening. Together with six in the morning, this makes a total of ten talks a day; that is quite a lot to digest.
If you have the opportunity, try to attend at least once during your (early) career, even if it is only to attach faces to the names on the papers you read. It gives you insights into the combinatorial optimization community you would otherwise probably miss. Good and bad, decide for yourself 😉