In February, before the COVID-19 pandemic locked down cities and closed borders, I spent four days with about 50 mathematicians at the Oberwolfach Research Institute for Mathematics in the Black Forest of southern Germany. Most weeks of the year the institute hosts small gatherings focused on different areas of mathematics. I planned to insinuate myself among the professional mathematicians: break bread with them, take a far-back seat at their lectures, eavesdrop on their hallway conversations, and try to figure out how a close gathering like this one promotes mathematical discovery.
There’s no easy way to get to Oberwolfach. I arrived on a Monday by the recommended route, which is to fly to Frankfurt, then take a two-hour train trip south to the hamlet of Wolfach, then a 30-minute cash-only taxi ride along the river Wolf. Eventually I spied the institute itself, perched midway up a steep hill and backed by an expanse of evergreen forest.
Remoteness is the point.