Topic Conferences, Place Conferences

I spent this week at Current Themes in High Energy Physics and Cosmology, a conference at the Niels Bohr Institute.

Most conferences focus on a particular topic. Usually the broader the topic, the bigger the conference. A workshop on flux tubes is smaller than Amplitudes, which is smaller than Strings, which is smaller than the March Meeting of the American Physical Society.

“Current Themes in High Energy Physics and Cosmology” sounds like a very broad topic, but it was a small conference. The reason why is that it wasn’t a “topic conference”, it was a “place conference”.

Most conferences focus on a topic, but some are built around a place. These conferences are hosted by a particular institute year after year. Sometimes each year has a loose theme (for example, the Simons Summer Workshop this year focused on theories without supersymmetry) but sometimes no attempt is made to tie the talks together (“current themes”).

Instead of a theme, the people who go to these conferences are united by their connections to the institute. Some of them have collaborators there, or worked there in the past. Others have been coming for many years. Some just happened to be in the area.

While they may seem eclectic, “place” conferences have a valuable role: they help to keep our interests broad. In physics, there’s a natural tendency to specialize. Left alone, we end up reading papers and going to talks only when they’re directly relevant for what we’re working on. By doing this we lose track of the wider field, losing access to the insights that come from different perspectives and methods.

“Place” conferences, like seminars, help pull things in the other direction. When you’re hearing talks from “everyone connected to the Simons Center” or “everyone connected to the Niels Bohr Institute”, you’re exposed to a much broader range of topics than a conference for just your sub-field. You get a broad overview of what’s going on in the field, but unlike a big conference like Strings there are few enough people that you can actually talk to everyone.

Physicists’ attachment to places is counter-intuitive. We’re studying mathematical truths and laws of nature, surely it shouldn’t matter where we work. In practice, though, we’re still human. Out of the vast span of physics we still pick our interests based on the people around us. That’s why places, why institutes with a wide range of excellent people, are so important: they put our social instincts to work studying the universe.

6 thoughts on “Topic Conferences, Place Conferences

  1. Subhobrata

    Very insightful summary of nature of seminars and conferences and the way they foster wider understanding outside one’s own specialiazed interests. I too think ‘place’ conferences have their own appeal in bringing together a wider community while ‘topic’ conference focuses on discussing leading theories of a specific area.

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  2. mmanu

    Of course! You were there, you’re in Copenhagen now! Cool! … And here comes the ‘why’ for so much enthousiasm:
    Yesterday Francesca Vidotto published a photo with Carlo Rovelli & Nima Arkani-Hamed. Since then I’m burning to hear some inside story about their interaction during the conference. More precisely, was there any crispy questions after Carlo’s talk on Planck stars observational signature?

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      There was a bit of crispiness during Carlo’s talk, but Nima wasn’t there yet. (Nima showed up just a few hours before his own talk.) Jorge Santos tried to provoke Carlo during his own talk (Jorge’s), but as far as I could tell Carlo was focusing on his computer.

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