Planet Earth

Travel, Travel, and More Travel

Cosmic VarianceBy JoAnne HewettNov 12, 2006 10:50 PM

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As I write this, it's a cold dreary rainy Saturday morning here in the BlueGrass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky â€" I'm waiting for my delayed flight. Testimony that life as a physicist is not always so glamorous. In fact, readers of CV could get the opposite impression - that we are globetrotting celebrities, darting here and there to deliver lectures, attend meetings, and work with colleagues. It is true that physicists tend to have a heavy travel load. Going home today, I will log my 90,000^th flight mile for 2006 on United Airlines alone. Sometimes we visit exotic locales, but most of the time we travel so that we can spend our days discussing science in a windowless room in places like Batavia, Illinois. Sometimes, even when we travel to popular tourist destinations, we still spend our time in windowless rooms, prompting the phrase Travel Abroad, Stay Indoors. In particular, I remember a meeting in Paris, where all I saw was the inside of lecture halls, and even had working dinners in hotel restaurants with bad food. I might as well have been in Cleveland. So, why do physicists travel so frequently? My family continuously asks that question and one aunt in particular is convinced that my life is one big vacation. The answer is simple: science is all about interaction. The image of an eccentric white-haired gentlemen working away, alone, in his ivory tower couldn't be more false (on several counts). There are two main aspects to progress in science:

  • Research: Yes, a scientist does have to sit down and do the actual work, and yes, that can sometimes be rather tedious. However, before one sits down to do the work, you gotta have an idea. Preferably an interesting idea. That idea usually does not arrive in a single eureka moment while sitting in isolation. Well, actually maybe it does, but only after interaction with colleagues. After listening to lectures, reading papers, discussing points, and then churning ideas over (and over and over) in your head.

  • Dissemination: Even if you've done Nobel prize winning work, it doesn't matter if no one knows about it. You've got to sell your work. Publication in a prestigious journal (or posting on the arXiv) is not enough. A significant fraction of the new material physicists learn is absorbed by listening to talks. I guess we never abandon the notion of learning at lectures.

So, what are the sorts of business trips that physicists take? My trips have included all of the following this past year:

  • Conferences: We attend conferences to (i) give talks describing our own results, performing the dissemination part of our job, (ii) listen to other talks, gathering new ideas and staying up to date, and (iii) interact with a wide variety of colleagues.

  • Workshops: These are usually working meetings, where we perform a calculation that is oriented towards a specific goal (i.e., study of XYZ at the LHC) and have intense discussions with fellow workshop participants.

  • Summer Schools: Here we present a lecture series to a group of students. I must admit that I like summer schools that are held in nice or unusual destinations where I can spend time walking and taking pictures after my lectures are finished.

  • Seminars/colloquia/public lectures: We give individual lectures for dissemination and attend them to learn and gather new ideas. It's particularly important for young researchers to go on the seminar circuit so that they can become known.

  • Collaboration meetings: This is mainly for experimenters to stay abreast with the results within their detector collaboration. Can you imagine the LHC detector collaboration meetings, with roughly 2000 participants, discussing the intricate details of Higgs searches and possible discoveries! As a theorist who works closely with experimenters, I have been invited to give pep talks (a theoretical interlude if you like) at many collaboration meetings, and I always thoroughly enjoy doing so.

  • Visit a collaborator: This is clearly on the performing research side of the job, when collaborators meet face to face to develop ideas and further progress on a project.

  • Committee/panel meetings: This is taking an increasingly larger fraction of my time. Most commonly, we serve on peer review panels to review a set of grant proposals or potential experimental projects for their scientific merit. I have also served on panels which advise the DOE and NSF on broader funding issues and which have written literature to explain the merits of a project to various audiences.

So, my trip to Kentucky? To give a physics department colloquium on Discovering the Quantum Universe. I enjoy communicating the excitement of my field and the impending scientific revolution we expect at the LHC!

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