Speaking of physics
Posted by Arjendu on January 29, 2008
‘Comps’ season has started in the Physics and Astronomy Department — that’s the nickname for the ‘senior integrative exercise’ required of all graduating seniors at Carleton. In our Department, it works like this: The students come up with a topic that they would like to explore and on which they would become the local experts, and spend the equivalent of one very intense course digging into the physics – it doesn’t have to include original research, but it could if they wanted. The students have complete freedom, with the only constraint that their project be ‘integrative’, that is, contain ideas from more than one of their courses, and be significantly deeper than introductory course-work. The topics have ranged from ‘The physics of catfish’ through ‘Deriving the BCS theory of superconductivity’. At the end of all that, they make a 70 minute oral presentation open to the community, and write a 20 page paper that goes through 2 revisions – the first with a single faculty reader, the second with 3.
I remember spending my first comps season at Carleton with my jaw hanging open. During most of the presentations the kids are in control of the material – they know what they know and what they don’t know, and do a very good job of convincing you that they basically understand even the stuff they don’t know cold, and we all learn something as a result. The best ones have this, and more: The speaker ‘owns’ the material, the talk is carefully thought out, pedagogically soundly structured, and entertaining to boot. My reaction during these outstanding talks – about a couple a year or so — is that if I didn’t know for a fact that this kid hadn’t graduated college yet, I would give him/her a faculty job if (s)he wanted it. One particular joy is watching students who have not necessarily shone in the coursework get the bit between their teeth and blow every one out of the water. It serves to remind me yet again that raw technical talent does not necessarily indicate a good research student, and a good research student isn’t necessarily good at creating and directing a research program … and a good talk may be completely unrelated to all of the above.
Having come to Carleton and having seen undergraduates capable of giving good talks has served to further my annoyance with/lower my tolerance for bad seminar and colloquia speakers (see Chad, Biocurious, and YoungFemaleScientist’s recent posts). I have sat through talks at multiple places, and in particular, I was at Rice when they were in serious hiring mode, and I had the privilege of seeing some great talks from the candidates as they went through. In general, I am going to bet that job-talks are some of the most engaging talks you’ve seen. It really is no mystery why job talks are so good: there is a lot at stake during the talk, and at least at Rice, the colloquium talk is supposed to show off both research and teaching skills.
The bottom line for the quality – and even the level — of a talk seems reasonably obvious + fairly simple ‘economics’ analysis of the speaker’s self-interest, coupled to his/her evaluation of the audience. For example, if the seminar speaker thinks that there are only a couple of experts in the audience who (s)he wants to impress, the talk is aimed at their level or higher, and the rest of the audience suffers terribly as a result. I don’t mean that everyone has to be entertaining and put on a great show – but in planning your talk, at least have some respect for the bulk of the audience, think about what they do and don’t know, and so on.
You can’t get very far in science without persuading people of the value of your work. Those who direct that persuasion only at a few people at a talk are focused on those with power over them – the power to affect career, publications, and grants. It’s a short-sighted perspective, reinforcing a hierarchical system where many people simply ignore junior colleagues/students and postdocs since they have no power over them. (I’m exaggerating somewhat for effect, I doubt that there are many people out there who are so short-sighted.)
On the other hand, when visitors from graduate programs come to Carleton, the power structure shifts remarkably – we are in a seller’s market with many sharp and well-trained undergraduates, and the speakers work hard to engage these young minds.
Most talks are given in situations with a mixture of those senior to you and those junior to you, particularly at conferences. There are usually many people in the audience who may never have direct power over you, but to whom you are trying to convey some physics. And it is crucial for the long-term health of physics, your area of specialty, and your research program to get everyone excited about what you do.