Most Memorable Colloquim

I inspired Kristen at radioactive-banana.com to write about the best and worst colloquia she has heard, so I decided to write about the most memorable colloqium I ever heard. It was neither the best or worst, but I will never forget it. It was the first colloqium that I attended as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As brand new graduate students, my officemate and I had not yet learned the traditions of colloqium, so we sat in the second row. As the hall filled we soon saw that we were surrounded by the faculty. We soon learned that graduate students sat in the back of the hall, so they could relax and fall asleep if necessary.

The speaker was the Nobel Prize winner, Carlo Rubbia. He had not yet won his Nobel Prize, but he was speaking on stochastic cooling of antiprotons. It was being developed at CERN by Simon van der Meer, his co-Nobelist. That work that would lead to the discovery of the W and the Z bosons for which Rubbia won the Prize.

In 1979 there was no Powerpoint. Most physics talks were given using transparencies and an overhead projector. Rubbia had a massive stack of transparencies. I did not think there was any way that he could go through them all. I had never experienced such an information overload before, and I have not experienced one as great since. To this day, I tell people that Rubbia took a deep breath and spoke for an hour straight without inhaling again.

Within about 10 minutes, I knew that this was not going to be a leaisurely lecture where I might have time to think about what I was hearing and perhaps learn something. Rubbia would put a transparency up and before I had an idea of what it was suppose to illustrate it was gone and new one appeared. Unfortunately, we were surrounded by the faculty and we did not want make a bad first impression, so we sat up straight and tried to survive the hurricane of physics that was pounding us.

In 1983 I was at CERN working on my thesis experiment when UA1 announced the discovery of the Z boson. A talk by Rubbia on the discovery was scheduled for the auditorium and it was packed. I went to a second auditorium where the talk was shown by video. It was a much more pleasent experience. I could relax, and I now knew enough to follow the talk even at the supersonic speed that it was given.

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6 Responses to “Most Memorable Colloquim”

  1. Guess Who Says:

    Wow. It’s your favorite daughter’s birthday and you didn’t mention her at all. I bet she’s sad right now.

  2. Happy Birthday, Guess Who!

    So, does everyone use Powerpoint in physics colloquia now? It was still transparencies back in ’97 when I gave my last talks. Do the talks seem better with slick computer graphic magic?

    Anyway, good story, and well told! I think these sorts of anecdotes are neat to share. It humanizes physics a little bit, I think, which is a fine result for physicists blogging.

  3. Not everyone uses powerpoint, some people use things such as the LaTeX beamer class (my choice for these things) for colloquia. Of course that is still using some of the graphic magic of powerpoint.
    I recently saw a lecture given by candidates for a position in my department that was done using transparencies. That brought back memories.

  4. I am of the opinion that there is entirely too much Powerpoint. The older theorists seem to still use transparencies.

    I find that people using Powerpoint cram too much into their slides. When I first started making talks on computers I used Latex and I put one graph per page. Doing more than that was too complicated. It looked boring, but you could follow it.

  5. I bought Edward Tufte’s booklet on what’s wrong with Powerpoint a couple of years ago (looks to be in a new edition now). I first used Powerpoint a couple of years after I left physics, and I found it frustrating how much my hands were tied in the visual choices I could make. It kind of locks in a standard, boring mediocre look despite the initial impression of having lots of choices. And the typography is awful. At least in the version that I used, you couldn’t change the spacings between letters to make things look nicer. It just looked clunky.

    We’d been using LaTeX to generate our transparencies in my lab back in the mid-’90s. I felt like we were able to get enough control to make things look unified. The information was there, and nothing more.

    Check out Tufte’s article “Powerpoint does rocket science” for some real information overload!

  6. In response to Mike’s comment, by the way—one graph per page might look “boring”, but we’re talking information design here, not fine art. I am certain that your audience is very grateful that you give them a chance to digest each graph. You clearly learned at least one thing from Carlo Rubbia’s talk, even if it had nothing to do with the stochastic cooling of antiprotons!

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