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All Particle Physics Talks are the Same January 30, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in physics, physics life.

Today’s physics department colloquia was on the physics of gravitational waves and, specifically, the Lisa experiment. It was a masterful talk put together by Craig Hogan, a joint member of our physics and astronomy departments. He did an excellent job of motivating Lisa and gravity wave experiments in general. I’m a skeptic when it comes to this field but Craig went a long way towards convincing me that good, fundamental, physics may come out of this experiment. As I walked out I found myself thinking “we need to give talks that are more like that.” We here are particle physicists in general.

And then I got stopped by another member of our department, who is a good friend of particle physics, and she said basically the same thing: all particle physics talks look the same. Some of the comments: Two slides on the detector. Some pictures of quarks, and then some hard-to-understand plots. Where is the story? I only know how hard it is to do this sort of thing because I know you guys: I’d never guess how hard it is from your talks. It is the same plots over and over!

Ya. Well. She is right. When I gave a seminar at SLAC about the single top result I did my best to talk about some of the things that disappear in an analysis presentation. But it was one or two slides. I think I had one slide on the detector. I’ve spent years working on the data acquisition system – I never talk about that. If you go to an astrophysics talk they will spend nearly half the talk discussing their hardware. And we do have some cool hardware in particle physics.

Ok. Have to do better. Of course, if tried something like this in front of a particle physics audience it might not work. They already know the detector and software and don’t really care. Or is that an assumption on my part? Doesn’t CDF want to know some hardware details about what we did differently? Or is the problem we’ve not split ourselves into two (sometimes, but not often enough, overlapping) classes: those who build the detector and those who write the software and those that do the analysis. Uh, three classes. So we go to separate conferences and just talk about the particular topic there. The talks that we should be giving in front of general physics audiences then should be some combination of these three themes.

But usually we just give the physics talk.



1. Kevin - January 30, 2007

In my experience, 95% of all talks are at too high a level to be understood and appreciated by a general audience even in their native department. I can’t remember the last time I left a talk thinking it was completely beneath me. I usually am happy to understand the intro and at least one of the three or four conclusions. Professors are also notorious at overestimating the level of their students.

2. gordonwatts - January 30, 2007

Kevin — I think it is more complex than that. In some ways we dumb it down too much. For example, we might cut out bits of the detector in order to make more room to talk about the physics itself… So we leave out half of what we are (supposed) to be doing. Perhaps I’m arguing for a new balence in topics.

3. Matt - February 1, 2007

Gordon – Do you know of any physics bloggers who are doing research in General Relativity, Gravity Waves, and other experimental work. I note that quite a few bloggers do work in quantum gravity, but where are all those experimentalists? Maybe the sites are sitting right under my nose… Any help?

4. gordonwatts - February 1, 2007

Hi Matt,
Short answer: I have no idea.

When I’m searching for blogs in science I usually avoid the blog search engines. They seem to work well for tech stuff, but not so well for science. I’ve had the best luck with using the big search engines and telling them I’m interested in recent results rather than older, well established results. http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=LISA+gravity+wave+%7Bfrsh%3D100%7D&mkt=en-US&form=QBRE&go.x=15&go.y=7 for the microsoft search engine. I dont’ know how to do it in google (I can restrict the last modification date, but I don’t know how to order by date, which is what you really want for this).

I found this — http://www.misunderstooduniverse.com/LIGO_LISA_Cosmic_Money_Pit.htm — but I don’t think it is a blog (and it contains some real inaccuracies).

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