Research or Conference? Can’t it be both?

“If you’re there for two months, for sure you’ll be doing research.”

I wanted to be snarky. I wanted to point out that, as a theoretical physicist, I do research wherever I go. I wanted to say that I even did research on the drive over. (This may not have been true, I think I mostly thought about Magic the Gathering cards.)

More than any of those, though, I wanted to get my travel visa. So instead I said,

“That’s fair.”

“Mmhmm, that’s fair.” Looking down at the invitation letter, she triumphantly pointed to the name of the inviting institution: “South American Institute for Fundamental Research.”

A bit of background: I’m going to Brazil this winter. Partly, this is because winter in Canada is not especially desirable, but it’s also because Sao Paulo’s International Center for Theoretical Physics is running a Program on Integrability, the arcane set of techniques that seeks to bypass the approximate perturbations we often use in particle physics and find full, exact results.

What do I mean by a Program? It’s not the sort of scientific program I’ve talked about before, though the ideas are related. When an institute holds a Program, they’re declaring a theme. For a certain length of time (generally from a few months to a whole semester), there will be a large number of talks at the institute focused on some particular scientific theme. The institute invites people from all over the world who work on that theme. Those people are there to give and attend talks, but they’re also there to share ideas with each other, to network and collaborate and do research.

This is where things get tricky. See, Brazil has multiple types of visas. A Tourist Visa can be used, among other things, for attending a scientific conference. On the other hand, someone coming to Brazil to do research uses Visa 1.

A Program is essentially a long conference…but it’s also an opportunity to do research. So are most short conferences, though! In theoretical physics we have workshops, short conferences explicitly focused on collaboration and research, but even if a conference isn’t a workshop you can bet that we’ll be doing some research there, for sure. We don’t need labs, and some of us don’t even need computers, research can happen whenever the inspiration strikes. The distinction between conferences and research, from our perspective, is an arbitrary one.

In physics, we like to cut through this sort of ambiguity by looking at what’s really important. I wanted to figure out what about research makes the Brazilian government use a different visa for it, whether it was about motivating people to enter the country for specific reasons or tracking certain sorts of activities. I wanted to understand that, because it would let me figure out whether my own research fell under those reasons, and thus figure out objectively which type of visa I ought to have.

I wanted to ask about all of this…but more than any of that, I wanted to get my travel visa. So I applied for the visa they told me to, and left.

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