Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, October 15, 1999  |  Number 20
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Let's Get Together and Talk Physics

by Judy Jackson

Con fer ence, n.1.a.A meeting for consultation ro discussion. b.An exchange of views...[...from Latin conferre, to bring together.]

Conferences. Workshops. Colloquia. Seminars. Symposia. Every month, around the world, dozens of these physics get-togethers, large and small, formal and roll-up-your-sleeves informal, bring together the men and women who work at the science of particle physics. At Fermilab alone, in September and October a half-dozen workshops and conferences addressed such issues as B physics, hyperon physics and international collaboration for future accelerators. A survey of Wilson Hall bulletin boards one recent morning turned up posters for some 30 upcoming conferences, from "String Theory at the Millennium" at Caltech in January, to "International Computing in High Energy and Nuclear Physics" in Padua in February, to "Cosmic Genesis and Fundamental Physics" at Sonoma State at the end of this month.

Cynthia SazamaFermilab's Cynthia Sazama has been organizing physics conferences for 31 years. What she doesn't know about invitations, travel arrangements, housing, meeting rooms, poster sessions, message centers, computer connections, copy machines, laser pointers and the care and feeding of physicists, you probably don't need to know. "I'll tell you one thing," Sazama says. "The only thing these people talk about is physics. At the banquet, on the boat ride, wherever--they eat,drink and talk physics."

What is it about these gatherings that makes physicists attend so many of them? In this age of instant electronic communication and ubiquitous videoconference facilities, what makes conferences so important that physicists will put up with almost anything to get together with their colleagues and talk about physics?

It certainly isn't the allure of exotic destinations.

"One thing I don't think I've ever heard anyone in our field say," said Fermilab Director Michael Witherell, "is, `Gee, I sure wish I could travel more.' The fact is that most of the information exchange in our field today is through conferences."

Fermilab theorist Chris Quigg agreed.

"Particle physics is extremely collaborative," Quigg said, "It advances through the collective intelligence of the field. Conferences are one classic way that this happens. Conferences benefit physics research in ways large and small, from a talk announcing a stunning new result, to a chance remark overheard at a coffee break. Sometimes, you might even find out that other people think you are wasting your time, which can be very valuable information."

Fermilab Computing Division Deputy Head Steve Wolbers is perhaps among the best- networked people on the planet. He knows from videoconferencing, he uses it frequently, and he believes it can be very useful. But, said Wolbers, "even if we imagine teleconferencing technology as perfect as it could possibly be, it would still be no substitute for what happens when people get together at the same time in the same place. No videoconference technology can accomplish the seamless communication of a large group of people. There is too much going on. For example, in a conference, you see how people are reacting to what the speakers are saying. Are they rolling their eyes, falling asleep, jumping out of their chairs with excitement?"

But it's not just the scheduled presentations that make conferences valuable, physicists say. It's also what happens in the hallways.

"In ways that only happen when people get together," said Associate Director Steve Holmes, "things can happen at a conference that are unplanned, spontaneous. In talking to someone during a break or at the conference reception, you may find something out that leads you to think about things in a whole new way. You always learn something that is not what you planned to learn."

Theorist Keith Ellis went still further.

"The conference is the most effective means of scientific interchange," Ellis said. "In the last few years, the method of diffusion of scientific information has changed radically. We now have instant access to all the written material. The problem with electronic communication, though, is that you only get what you are looking for. There is no opportunity for the unplanned, the unexpected information that is the invaluable result of face-to-face human interaction."

Holmes, who knows something about large physics projects, having served as project manager for Fermilab's Main Injector, highlighted another function that conferences serve in high-energy physics.

"Conferences and workshops are indispensable in developing consensus for very large projects. They are extremely valuable in airing issues. Our community consists of a few thousand people, and a significant fraction of them have to get together to make the information flow. Otherwise, you don't end up with the best program, the program that incorporates everybody's best thinking and knowledge and creativity."

In fact, for accelerator physicists, conferences may play an especially important role, said SLAC accelerator physicist Tor Raubenheim (interviewed at Fermilab while attending a conference).

"We are in a part of the field that doesn't rely so much on publications," Raubenheim said. "A lot of the information is in people's heads. In vacuum technology, or cryogenics, it is critical to talk to the experts, the people who have thought about the hard problems. We are, perhaps, in some ways a rather antisocial field. But conferences are a time when you have the opportunity, in fact you are almost forced to talk to people and exchange ideas. If you have a large-scale problem to solve, a conference or workshop gives you an opportunity to put a lot of experts to work on it, to divide it up in pieces and then put the pieces together."

But it isn't just the machine-builders who need opportunities to talk with their colleagues. At the theoretical end of the spectrum, said Fermilab theorist Joe Lykken, "conferences are one of the best ways that theorists and experimentalists have to get together. Often theorists find out at a conference or a workshop that something is experimentally testable, some problem is now capable of attack by the experimentalists. That can send them into whole new areas of theoretical work that had appeared closed before."

Fermilab Deputy Director Ken Stanfield pointed to the role of conferences in fostering collaborations across parochial laboratory boundaries, and even across international borders. It was at the 1979 Lepton-Photon Conference that physicists Giorgio Bellettini and Paolo Giromini, of the University of Pisa, decided to join CDF, a decision that changed the face of Fermilab and brought countless Italian physicists and Italian resources to the U.S. to help in the search for the top quark.

Sometimes, said Holmes, husband of Fermilab physicist and CDF Upgrade Project Co-manager Cathy Newman-Holmes, a physics conference can result in a collaboration that is even closer.

"Cathy and I had seen each other at Fermilab, and again at CERN," Holmes said, "but we really hadn't met. In October, 1980, I went to the CESR II Workshop in Ithaca. I arrived at my hotel the night before the conference. I opened the door from my room to go downstairs for dinner. At the same moment, across the hallway, Cathy opened the door from her room. We had dinner together. The rest, as they say, is history."

last modified 10/15/1999   email Fermilab