Thoughts from Above, I

[Written a few hours ago on a plane. Later uploaded for your consumption.]

I find myself on a plane to New York (sort of) all of a sudden. I’ll explain later what it’s all about, since I do not yet know to what extent I’m allowed to blog about the details. Let’s just say that it involves dusting off the tuxedo (I can’t recall what we called them in England..dinner suit?) that I bought a couple of years ago. I’ll leave you to guess, if you like, what on earth could involve being thus attired during the daylight hours.

About the tuxedo: I’d decided back then, while preparing to be one of the blushing recipients at an award ceremony, that I’d buy a decent one and get it tailored to fit properly rather than continually rent ones that don’t quite fit right. I decided to gamble that – given the town I live in, where the cold Winter Season is replaced by an Awards Season- it makes sense to own one, especially since my suit measurements have not really changed for the last 20 years or so1.

This blog post is not about anything in particular. It’s really just some random thoughts passing through my head as I fly over the… Oh. well, it was desert last time I looked. But now it’s just cloud, so I’ve no idea what I’m over. A cloud-covered bit of desert, I expect.

Travel Planning

While engaged in this unexpected travel, I’ve realized that it is high time to start planning Spring and Summer travel. Already the spectrum of possibilities is somewhat bewildering, as there are many opposing agendas. So I’m going to have to decide which agendas are most important to me. (Sadly, I’m going to have to rule out the apparently most attractive one to me – lying in a cozy bed asleep for several months, waking only to eat a tasty meal – since for a start it won’t happen, and furthermore I’d probably get bored with it awfully quickly).

1. The Options

The main objective that is to be served outside the teaching months (which for me are late August to early December and then early January to early May) is to get as much quality time to engage in research as possible. The model I’ve adopted over the last few years is to find a few good places to simply hide for a long while. This rather than the attend-every-event-I-can model, which really does nothing for me beyond fleetingly seeing old friends, shaking an awful lot of hands, and sleeping in too many different beds than is really good for one’s health2. I’ve also not been necessarily wedded to the idea of going to the Big Conference in my field – Strings X – (where X stands for the last two digits of the year it is held) since their value for money seemed to go down quite a bit with their increasing size. I love going to them, but my budget is severely limited, so I go to them less often, and annually try to go for the high value targets – long workshops, or just a long visit somewhere like a center of physics activity that has enough in the way of resources to allow me to get some good work done.

Long workshops are great. There’s a theme, and some people show up who are interested in that theme and you hang out together for two weeks or more and get on with discussing and exchanging ideas about that. In the best possible circumstances you have an office (usually shared) that you can use as home base, or at the very least a place you can regularly come to in order to work, or just leave your stuff while you sit nearer the coffee. Also in that ideal set up there are a few talks to go to, but certainly not an oppressive schedule of talks every hour and every day. Definitely no mixers, banquets, parallel sessions, posters, and the like. In short, you just want a place that is sort of like your home institution setup, but without the stuff that distracts you from research while you’re there, and the other workshop attendees are then like your new faculty colleagues for a while.

A visit to a place that does not have a workshop can also be great. Basically, take the above paragraph and remove the theme-specific things. So there might be other physicists about, but not necessarily working on the same things as you. There might be interesting talks you might go to, but they are not about things you work on – there’s a double bonus of this, in that there’s no obligation to go to any such talks usually. You can decide to go or not.

A third thing I like to do is simply just hide and work in a random place that may have no official academic relevance at all. This is hard to do and claim as a research expense, of course, but can also be of high value. In view of the ease with which one can get connected to the web from anywhere, giving access to all sorts of online research materials (as diverse as your home institutional gateway to journal back catalogues all the way to simply Google), this kind of visit is increasingly becoming similar to the visit to a specific institution I mentioned earlier. I like to do a bit of both.

And there’s also the stay-at-home option. I really love Home. Home is great. I love all three things that constitute it in this context: My Home institution USC, my home Home (the place I sleep and keep my stuff), and of course my Home city, the wonderful city of Los Angeles, which is fantastic in the Spring and Summer: It is quiet at that time of year, as everyone else has gone off somewhere to do one of the non-Home Summers I mentioned above, the students have all gone away to do whatever it is they do from May to August, and the days seem lovely, slow and long, like the ones in my youth. The problem with Home is that people find things for you to do while you’re there (you know, committees and stuff), so it is best not to reveal that you’re around too loudly. Home is also great for working more closely with ones graduate students, and hanging out with them too, if you’re of the persuasion of person who socializes with their students (I am – I can’t separate it from the research very easily). Home is also cheap. Very cheap, relatively speaking. And you’re always welcome, which is a major bonus. Oh, and there’s no time wasted trying to work out how to get a web connection or communicate with that printer down the hall that obviously does not like you.

2. What to do

So at this time year I start trying to (with an eye on the budget) figure out which combination of the above I might do. My pattern right now is to shoot for a good stretch of Home, and one or two long workshops (preferably separated by another good stretch of Home). I usually can only afford one long workshop, so a second usually comes about only if there is financial support (maybe I’ve been invited and there are some funds to help pay for invited attendees). If I feel it in my bones, I might go to the big Strings X conference one year. It can be worth popping along to them once every few years. Sometimes it is spectacularly worth it, when you’re attending at the time when something Big has happened, like in 1995 (when the first big guns were fired in the Second Superstring Revolution), and for a number of notable years after that. What I don’t like is that people in the field got a bit spoiled into believing that there should be a Big announcement every year – somebody was supposed to stand up there and tell us all what to do (by announcing a new Big idea) with our research time for the next year. The downside of this way of thinking was that a conference would often be declared to be not so great that year if there was no such Big announcement, as though it was the fault of the organizers for not giving Witten or Polchinski or Maldacena a more clear deadline warning to finish up their instruction set. (The next step on this slippery slope is to declare that the field itself is in a slump because of the absence of such a Big announcement, or a flurry of bandwagonism. Such a view, expressed sometimes both by people outside the field and by people within the field (who should know better) is simply juvenile.) You’d even see people trying to artificially manufacture a new flurry of excitement in the big summary talks at the end of the conference. It’s all a bit silly, but not unnatural since everybody loves a breakthrough, but we must be careful not to miss the really valuable stuff by focusing only on the eye-candy. Of course, we might never know which is which until decades or more from now – that’s the hard part. This is also the reason why it’s best not to force these flurries of activity – let the seeds fall where they may.

Where was I? Ah, yes, the issue of whether I’ll go along to Strings ’07 or not. Well, it is in Western Europe this year, and since I’ve personal matters to attend in England this Spring/Summer, it is tempting to combine it with a trip that keeps me in Europe for quite a bit of time. Maybe pick a hideout in either England or somewhere else and use it as a base for a while, taking in the conference. The Aspen Center for physics has become a habit that is hard for me to break, and I help out there annually with various matters pertaining to the running of the Center, (the truth is that you can never truly escape committee work, folks – you just learn to embrace it) so I’m probably there for some of the Summer. There’s a fascinating-looking workshop on mathematical aspects of string theory there too, and so I hope to overlap a bit with that if I go. I say overlap because I’ve found that the perfect setup for me for Aspen visits is to go when the workshop topics are about nothing of direct relevance to my field for about half the time. This pattern mixes the first two types of the long-stay visits rather ideally, in my view, and the place is so familiar now that there’s a bit of the Home aspect mixed in too.

Then there’s this other option, which is Cambridge. It seems (from a fancy invitation package I got in the post the other day) that I officially expressed interest to one of the organizers of a workshop (to be held at the Newton Institute) on the fascinating subject of applications of string theory to strong nuclear physics, with what I expect to be discussions of lots of both experimental, phenomenological and theoretical aspects of this material3. As I have a raft of several talented and hungry (intellectually!) students working with me on topics of this sort, I feel a strong duty to attend and lap up what I can to bring home to feed them4

But I also leave room for the unexpected. One of two things might also happen to determine location for research this Spring/Summer. I may well just decide to go somewhere random and lose myself there for a while. Options include going off and hiding in a big exciting interesting city (one I can afford) and just working in libraries, hotel rooms and cafes for a while. Taipei, Seoul, Cape Town, etc., spring to mind, as do several others. The other thing might be that I get one of those offers I can’t refuse – to go to a workshop or visit a place which is particularly interesting (because of the people and/or the location), and for which there might also be funds to help stretch my budget. That happens from time to time and can often be of unexpectedly high value.

Well, I’d better start fiddling with the calendar so see how all this takes shape. I’ll continue my stream of thoughts in a second part, shortly.

-cvj

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  1. Ah, there I go again. “Oversharing” – a new (to me) hybrid word I learned last month on a day-long session of being part of an interview panel. I like it. [return]
  2. No, no, that’s not a euphemism. I’m a simple scientist, not a rock star. I mean exactly what I said there, at face value. [return]
  3. See a very nice post by Bee and Stefan on Backreaction about this a while back. [return]
  4. Oh, gosh, that’s a rather disturbing choice of metaphor, but since it is in fact a rather accurate description of that process, I’ll leave it just as it came freshly from my brain to my fingertips. [return]

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