I have always wanted to explore Scandinavia as I am fascinated by their arctic cultures and mysterious auroras. And SAMBa made my dream come true! My department advertised a post-graduate summer school in Finland, where students come together to study mathematics and other science subjects. So finally I got to experience what it’s like to be in a place norther than I have ever been.

I decided to pack light for the trip so I managed to squeeze 14 days’ worth of stuff into my normal backpack and whizzed off to Finland. I stayed in Helsinki for one night so that I could meet my penpal – and of course, warm my Finnish up before putting it in action.

I took a 3.5-hour long bus ride to Jyväskylä, a city in central Finland where the summer school was located. I rented a bike for commuting between the University and the accommodation, which was a very good idea as I got to see different parts of the city on my commute. The student accommodation I stayed in was very nice, although some of the facilities were strange. For example, the lift that takes you to the ninth floor has no door, so you could literally see the walls moving downwards as you go up. When I got to my flat, I was delighted that my room was bright and spacious, the theme was white and minimalistic. The kitchen had a peculiar Finnish invention – the dish drying rack is located above the sink, instead of beside it, so that the water drips directly downwards, this does actually save a lot of space.

My flatmate was called Roman, who was from Slovakia and taking the computer science courses at the summer school. He became my best friend there and we signed up for all the social programmes together.

The first lecture (Malliavin calculus) consisted of me trying to keep up with the pace of the presentation slides and writing every equation down. It was very enjoyable. During the break I tried to speak Finnish with some people, who were very surprised that I could, as nobody learns a language (especially a challenging one!) just for a summer school experience. They asked me how Finnish grammar works because apparently nobody in Finland knows how their own grammar works.

In the second lecture (Optimal Transport and Geometric Inequalities), there was a blind woman sitting in the front row who kept asking for clarification of what was written on the blackboard (whether the interval [0,infty) includes 0 or not etc.)  I was amazed at how someone can do mathematics without sight and how they can remember all the information just by ear. Since then, I have been working on improving my skill to talk about maths without a pen and paper, which I realised is very useful when you’re on the bus or at a dinner party with a fellow mathematician.

As part of the summer school there was also a social programme, which was extremely good. Almost every day, the summer school coordinators organised activities for us as a way of us networking and meeting other students: barbecuing Finnish sausages, biking around the lake, visiting art museums etc. Out of all these activities I’d like to talk about sauna. Sauna is probably the most well-known word in English that came from Finnish. On the Saturday we biked to Huviniemi to enjoy sauna at a summer house by the lake.

The sauna is a wooden room with a hot stove in the middle which heats the room to 80 degrees. You sit around it and occasionally throw some water onto it, after a few seconds you feel the hot steam steaming up your face. When you have had enough of sauna, you should run out and jump into the lake to cool yourself down, and then repeat this several times. To be fair I am not a big fan of hot places so I spent more time in the lake. Some people, however, said the lake was too cold and got out immediately. After sauna, we had a barbecue and ate some Finnish blueberry pies.

Aside from the summer school social programme, we also made our own social events. The best was hiking in a Finnish forest to pick mushrooms and berries with Roman, Emil (Danish) and Akseli (Finnish, from Tampere).  As I do not have the stomach of a goat, I did not eat them. It was good to have a Finn around as he knew how to identify Finnish mushrooms and berries. We had fun getting lost in the Finnish swamps and trying to find our way back home.

Finland can be summarised by three words: spacious, nature, simple. The country is quite sparsely populated, roads are wide, forests and lakes everywhere, and architecture design is minimalistic. Space allows mathematicians to think, to fill the void with meaning. I would definitely like to visit Finland again.

Posted in: Statistical Applied Mathematics


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