What’s with locality and subdomain specific British blogs?

A week or so ago, I happened across the London Number Theory Blog. I thought to myself “Huh, that’s an interesting idea; a blog specifically for workers on a particular subject in a particular city. Seems a little funny, but it could have some interesting uses.” Indeed, while there are some points of general interest on there, it does seem largely aimed at people who are participating their study group (which is great! more study groups should have blogs like this).

Then, just today, I found the Edinburgh Mathematical Physics Group blog. And then I started to wonder…one such blog seems like a curiosity, but two starts to feel like a trend. Was this driven by some kind of external event for just a weird coincidence?

21 thoughts on “What’s with locality and subdomain specific British blogs?

  1. Perhaps universities are more likely to be concentrated geographically in Britain than in the US, making this feasible?

    In that case one would expect to see this more in areas of the US where there is a high concentration of universities. For a while a few years ago there was a Philadelphia combinatorial algebraic geometry seminar, which usually met at Penn but included people from Drexel, Swarthmore, and St. Joseph’s. (But they had no blog.)

  2. Well, the Edinburgh one is only two universities, and the London situation is wildly confusing (Most universities in London are part of the “University of London” which has little actual coherence as an institution, and in particular, no main campus). So I’m not sure that’s really the issue.

  3. Seems a bit weird to me too. I like Michael’s theory. In principle the answer to your point about Edinburgh is that there are several other universities within striking distance (e.g. two in Glasgow, which is an hour away). But in practice I’m not sure that there’s so much interaction between Edinburgh and other Scottish universities in mathematical physics. There are _loads_ of universities close enough to London that one might sensibly travel there for a seminar.

    I guess the easy way to find out the answer is to ask Minhyong Kim, Kevin Buzzard and Jose Figueroa-O’Farrill.

  4. Re “external events”, maybe the answer is yes, kinda. The NSF-like funding bodies in the UK are increasingly keen on giving larger grants, i.e. grants for big groups rather than individual researchers. (The nauseating phrase is “centres of excellence”.) So universities are correspondingly keen to make a big deal of their, um, centres of excellence.

    I don’t imagine for a moment that Minhyong, Kevin, José etc started their blogs in order to please their universities. But the idea that one should assert the existence, importance, dynamic nature etc of one’s “group” is increasingly on people’s minds here.

  5. In HEP/string theory, there are the “The London Triangle” and “String theory in greater Paris”, none of them hosting blogs.

  6. I just don’t buy the “concentration” argument. Remember, the Boston-DC megalopolis has population and population density comparable to England, and more world-class universities. Admittedly the rest of the US is a bit more spread out (from my future home of Eugene, the nearest pure math department in AMS Group I is Washington, 5 hours away by car and 6 and a half by train).

  7. one such blog seems like a curiosity, but two starts to feel like a trend carelessness!

  8. Ha! Yes, it was my evil twin. My evil Canadian twin (“Leinster-eh”… oh, never mind).

    So I suppose I might as well confess to being klutzy enough that (a) in order to get José’s acute accent, I did a cut and paste, and (b) I couldn’t even do a cut and paste without making a mess.

    I don’t know what to think about the concentration theory. (Of course England doesn’t have many world-class universities; they’re all in Scotland.) Maybe you’re right. I think I like the funding theory better now, anyway; or maybe it’s just coincidence.

  9. there is the BC-MIT-Harvard number theory seminar, the CUNY-NYU-Columbia number theory seminar, also Princeton is well close to New York. The thing is that these most famous professors in these top univeristies (mostly I mean Harvard Princeton Columbia IAS) are very busy, they certainly do not have time for blogging or MO. And since they are not doing so, a lot of students there do not blog or MO either (that’s as far as I observed and guessed). Berkeley is different, Berkeley has the tradition to do new and democratic things (so it’s not surprising both SBS and MO are founded by Berkeley people).
    I also believe in the funding theory about the universities in England and Scotland. Probably this will also work for American universities if NSF gives out group fundings.

  10. @Allen: A bit frivolous for a blog whose tone is meant
    to be *earnest* (so to speak). I confess however to having the same literary flashback as you when I read Ben’s line,

  11. As fellow Scot Tom Leinster points out, the raison d’être of the EMPG (I think of the blog as just a natural extension of the activities of the group) is really the fact that there are two universities involved and even when we are in the same city, we are not so close that we can maintain cohesion without some effort.

    The formation of the group back in 2000 was sparked by the realisation that whereas there wasn’t critical mass in Mathematical Physics in neither the University of Edinburgh nor Heriot-Watt University, there was if we pulled together. This then gave rise to joint seminars, PG course,… and now the blog. (And let’s not forget the Facebook group to keep track of alumni!)

    As Tom’s evil twin pointed out, the basic idea behind the blog is to increase the group’s exposure.

    Now, the EMPG as a group does not receive external funding; although subgroups thereof often do. For example, there’s “String Theory Scotland” which is an STFC grant awarded last year to four of us in the EMPG.

    There was no talk of “centres of excellence” when the EMPG was formed, though. In fact, the EMPG actually foreshadowed the formation of the Maxwell Institute, which is the result of a research pooling initiative between the maths departments in our two universities. (We even had a joint submission in the 2008 RAE — a statement which might make little sense to non-UK people.)

    Finally, there is some contact between Edinburgh and Glasgow mathematical physicists: mostly the integrability crowd these days. There should be even more, of course.

  12. I’m hardly the one to ask. My wife got an early degree at Edinburgh University. I mostly hang out at the Math and Physics/Astrophycis departments at Caltech. I am not aware that there is a Pasadena-style of blogs, nor Los-Angeles Style, although L.A. has the most Persian blogs in the world (Iran isn’t blog-friendly) and Hollywood-insider blogs. I do post a lot of Math links (to arXiv paper, for example) and to Blath, on my Facebook page, and I notice clusters of new friends (I’m just under 800 “friends”) by country. A burst from Sri Lanka. A burst from Indonesia. A burst from France. So there is some strange geographical perturbation going on. But I’m not sure how the Earth’s surface is embedded (or immersed) in infinite-dimensional Cyberspace.

  13. Reading #16 rather quickly, I wondered at first what Jonathan meant by saying that the blogs from LA are more Persian than the blogs anywhere else in the world.

  14. Oxbridge in NBFAS is indeed pretty extreme. Our version (NBMPS) started out with just Edinburgh, Durham and York, but since this year also Nottingham has joined. That has raised the occasional eyebrow, but nothing more. I’m not sure how NBFAS is funded, but NBMPS is funded from a regional grant by the London Mathematical Society (=UK version of the AMS) which explicitly states that participating institutions must all be within easy reach of each other so that full one-day meetings without the need for overnight stays are possible.

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