Your Mileage May Vary

Postcards from the Energy Frontier by Prof Jon Butterworth

The corona-cancellation of travel, for both work and holiday, at least means I’m making some progress on a long-standing “to do” list. 

Socially distant London

I’m fortunate; we have a loft space where I can work, and my kids are old enough to amuse themselves while I do this. The background noise from multiple teleconferences reminds me that not everyone is in this position.

One long-standing item I hope to finish soon is the write up of the “Standard Model at 50” conference I attended a couple of years ago. Two years is a long delay, even by the usual standards of conference proceedings, but it is a bit of a landmark conference and the written contribution will go in a book to be published by Cambridge University Press, so it seems worthwhile.

The organisers were even kind enough to provide us with transcripts from the recordings of our talks, which ought to make it easier. However. While listening to, or watching, oneself speak is a bit weird, it turns out reading my spoken words verbatim is another level of cringeworthy. A sample:

This doesn’t look like a standard smoothly varying bit of physics, okay? You have the low mass coupled, in general, to the most heavy thing, with decay, to the most heavy thing it has the energy to do so; it has enough mass to do so. So b-quarks are very important, but very hard to see.

Almost Trumpian in my incisive rhetoric, am I not?

Turning this into something readable, coupled with the current lack of travel, has made me think about the purpose of conferences, and the written proceedings associated with them. Would we really miss them if they never came back? I did a lot of travelling last year, because I was on sabbatical. This year, because of COVID-19 I have missed, or will miss, trips to Aspen, Benasque, Edinburgh, Hamburg and Paris so far (as well as the usual semi-regular CERN commute). Has particle physics really suffered because of this?

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We are seeing delays in the upgrade and maintenance programme at CERN of course, (as well as, quite rightly, significant diversion of effort) but the data analysis and software work that I do, as well as the many meetings associated with that, always involved teleconferencing options anyway. They now continue virtually unabated.

Conferences though, and proceedings? They come in different flavours.

There are the genuine workshops, where new collaborations are started and results are produced. I find these the most satisfying, and at least for the way I work, necessary. Examples would be the two-yearly Les Houches workshops. The proceedings for the June 2019 meeting appeared recently, and they contain original work carried out over the whole year. Typically they receive a pretty large number of citations, and often lead to new collaborations and publications. The Munich workshop I went to last spring is somewhat similar; though it doesn’t have written proceedings, many papers originate there.

Here is a conference. With people. All together. Like in the good ole days.

Less essential to me, but fun and useful, are the small conferences (say 50 to 150 attendees) where people can show their own work. I would put the “Boost” series of meetings I’ve been involved in this category, as well as the Kruger meeting I went to last year. These can also spark off new collaborations, and for experimentalists they can provide the opportunity to give your own take on the work of your experiment. Conference talks and proceedings are generally less heavily reviewed and homogenised by the large collaborations than are journal papers, so there should be more room for some opinion and personality. The parallel sessions of the big conferences can provide similar opportunities.

Then there are those big summary conferences. Before the days of ubiquitous internet, these used to be places to find exciting new results. That itself is no longer a reason to travel, but the opportunity to hear experts at the top of their game synthesise and report on a developing sub-field may be. There are also the coffee breaks and networking, although personally I probably network better online or in smaller groupings. I find an exhibition hall full of chattering physicists quite intimidating sometimes.

Some of the conferences planned for spring and summer have been rearranged, anticipating the return of some kind of normality later in the year. Others have gone completely virtual. Others have just been cancelled. Having organised conferences myself, I really feel for the people who put in so much work which may now be lost, and am full of admiration for those who made the right call early, in some cases well ahead of their local political leadership. They have probably saved lives.

I think we (in common with other fields of academia and related areas) should use the hiatus caused by COVID-19 as an opportunity to reconsider the benefits, resource implications and environmental impact of the cycle of such meetings, and not assume we will automatically return to our previous schedule.

Different people work differently, of course. Your mileage may, as they say, vary. Although for the foreseeable future it is likely to be zero.

Professor Jon Butterworth is a physics professor at University College London and a researcher on the ATLAS experiment at CERN involved with, amongst other things, the discovery of the Higgs Boson. He is the author of two popular science books Smashing Physics and A Map of the Invisible. Postcards From the Energy Frontier is the successor to Jon’s hugely successful blog for The Guardian, Life and Physics. He is @jonmbutterworth on Twitter.

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