Once upon a lifetime ago, I took Part III of the Maths Tripos.
In fact, rather alarmingly, I started exactly fifty years ago this term. And it was tough. You had to aim to do over the year (the equivalent of) six courses of 24 lectures, which were lectured at a helter-skelter, take-no-prisoners, pace. The blackboard notes gave you just the barest skeleton, and you had to spend a great deal of time working on them between classes in order to keep up, and then a lot more time in the vacations to really get on top of the material. I remember it as the time in my life I had to work by far the hardest, though it all worked out well.
Things, it seems, have changed astonishingly little. I’ve been turning out — Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 9! — to go to this year’s Part III Category Theory lectures (given by Rory Lucyshyn-Wright. The course is still lectured at a cracking pace, with blackboard notes giving you a bare skeleton, and leaving a great deal of work required if you are to put enough flesh onto the bones to get the real shape of what’s going on. No pre-digested handouts here!
I’m just about hanging on in there. I’m trying to write up quite detailed notes to fix ideas, and I’m already falling behind with those — and this despite the fact that I’ve read around a bit the subject in the past. But, as we all know, in maths in particular there is all the difference between a casual read and really working your way into a topic. And that’s what I want to try to do, at least for the beginnings of category theory. (Well, why not?)
OK, I’m no doubt slower on the uptake than I was back in the day, and the kids around me are among the world’s best mathematicians of their age, have a lot more energy and function more hours in the day. But they are having to keep up with three times as much this term, and will do it all again next term. We can only be impressed.