Jim Humphreys’s comment reminded me of one of my rants that has yet to be bloggified. The non-hyperbolic title is above; those who are amused rather than annoyed by my hyperbolic titles can imagine it was called “why the ICM is a scam.”
Now, as usual, you should take this with big fat grain of salt; I’ve only been to one ICM, during one of the unhappiest periods of my recent life (if you don’t believe me, just wait for the post on why Denmark is a scam), so I’m doing a pretty unscientific extrapolation. That said, I’ve been to one ICM, and it didn’t make me all that eager to go back.
As far as I can tell, average conference quality as a function of size is pretty close to strictly deceasing; of course, this is somewhat debatable for small values of N, though I could easily believe the “conferences” of most consistent quality are between 2 people who have something to interest to say to each other. Another way to say this is that adding most people to most conferences will make them worse (especially when one considers quality of experience for a fixed person, rather than some more overall measure), since that person will just get in the way of the people who have something to say to each other talking (this may sound weird, but you can only meet so many people at a conference, so you want to make sure you meet the right ones). This effect becomes much worse when you consider than conferences have finite resources, not just in terms of funding, but also in terms of things like personal space in the venue and places to get lunch conveniently. In particular, some barrier is crossed when size of the conference raises beyond the number of people you can easily have a conversation with during the duration of the conference (somewhere around 30 or 40 for a week-long conference).
I think this effect is particularly strong for relatively young people. Once you’ve been around long enough, almost any conference you’re willing to go to will have plenty of people you know, and so it’s easier to navigate around the people who are in the way; at this point, I would even believe that optimal conference would increase a bit, since it raises the probability that specific people you know will be there.
By this logic, one would expect the ICM to be the worst of all conferences, and this is certainly what my experience bears out. The ICM, by virtue of it’s size, must be put in a venue ill suited to a math conference (the ICM and Joint Meetings are the only conferences I’ve ever seen with no blackboards), must charge a large conference fee, make it almost impossible to get lunch near the venue and ironically, is a rather difficult place to meet new people. After all, at a conference with 30 people, you can probably have an interesting mathematical conversation with almost anyone. The ICM, on the other hand, tends to surround you with people with whom you have very little mathematical commonality.
Not that I’m calling for the disbanding of the ICM, just pointing out that it’s more something that I (and I suspect many other people) appreciate the existence of more than I actually enjoy participating in. I suspect I’ll go again some time in the future, but I’m in no hurry.