By Izabel Aguiar
An introverted mathematician looks at her shoes, an extroverted mathematician looks at your shoes.
Flipping through the 302 pages of the 2017 Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) program was overwhelming, to say the least. How any mathematician is expected to select which of the thousands of sessions to attend is baffling. As a JMM first-timer who finds everything from the mathematics of music to uncertainty quantification equally appealing, the choice was even more debilitating. When seeking guidance from seasoned JMM veterans, the most common piece of advice was to take advantage of the unique people-watching opportunities that the conference provides.
The value of this advice became apparent before I even stepped into the hotel in which JMM was being held. While walking down the street, I saw hordes of people sporting the blue lanyard and nametag of JMM, and was giddy with the knowledge that I would soon be surrounded by thousands of mathematicians. My observation of the vast aesthetic variety within the throngs of attendees accompanied my giddiness. Eccentric headwear, patterned pants, and creative eyeliner quickly shattered the stereotype of the nerdy mathematician in a polo and slacks; suddenly I was less self-conscious of my short hair and septum piercing.
The aesthetic diversity of JMM attendees extended to the assortment of shoes, and noticing the footwear of my fellow mathematicians got me thinking. I had spent a lot of time pondering which shoes I should bring to JMM, and was cognizant and wary of striking a balance between professionalism and comfort; I would be both walking back and forth between talks and exhibits all day, but also meeting potential mentors, employers, and collaborators. During a mad rush in the wee hours of the morning before my flight, I ended up wearing my Kmart pleather boots, whose broken heels annoyingly clip-clop with every step, and packing only my neon yellow tennis shoes. Yet as I stood in the hotel lobby, I wondered if everyone had experienced such difficulty in their footwear decision. I marveled at the alligator slippers, ratty sandals, and hiking boots, and searched for an excuse to connect with and better understand the people above them.
As it turns out, “can I take a photo of your shoes?” is a magnificent ice-breaker. Behind my press pass and camera, all social anxieties dissipated and I became the most outgoing individual in the history of JMM. Reactions from the owners of the 30 sets of feet I photographed varied as much as how they chose to adorn their feet, but all were gracious and kind. Though some were more reserved or busy, all responded to my request with a smile and stopped what they were doing to strike a foot pose.
My most notable interactions were with Yellow Suede Shoes, Chuck Taylors, and No Shoes. Yellow Suede Shoes beamed with pride and bragged about his reputation around campus of sporting obnoxious footwear. We parted ways and he thanked me for noticing and appreciating his shoes. Chuck Taylors and her mom struck up a conversation about their family and asked questions about my university. I was genuinely disappointed when I had to break away from our discussion. No Shoes asked to see my other shoe-photos, complimented the doodles in my notebook, and invited me on an expedition to the roof of the hotel (which I declined). We exchanged emails in hopes of connecting again in the future.
The clichéd sentiment that “you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear” is one about which I have mixed opinions following my social experiment and data collection. Yes, above anybody else, I would expect the man not wearing shoes in a four-star hotel to invite me to break on the rooftop. His choice in shoes, or lack thereof, just happened to affirm a judgement I might make about him. But had I not been at a conference for mathematicians, this stereotype would have likely ignored any possibility of his mathematical inclination.
By breaching the social barriers often present at events such as JMM, I had the unique opportunity of learning about and connecting with a multitude of different mathematicians. Without the JMM nametags, my existing ideas and assumptions about the aesthetics and personalities of mathematicians would influence my perception, and I would not have otherwise known that these were JMM attendees. The incredible mathematicians in Atlanta this week broke this mold and challenged my judgments.
The variety of shoes at JMM not only forced me to be aware and apprehensive of my concepts and biases, but taught me something bigger as well. Yes, the mathematician behind the shoes is unique and unlike any of the other thousands at the conference, and this uniqueness is special and important to recognize and champion. But arguably more important is the acknowledgement of the smile that always met my question, which represents what unifies us as individuals and mathematicians: the power and beauty of human connection.
Have you seen eye-catching, out-of-the-ordinary, funky shoes, or just plain shoeless attendees at a math conference? We invite readers to photograph and submit their favorite “conference” shoes! Upload any pictures using the comment thread below.