Wednesday, September 10, 2014 ... /////

Should junior people be equally loud during seminars?

A man named David Chalmers wrote down some norms of the right behavior during philosophical seminars and Sean Carroll responded, in a surprisingly moderate way. The recommendations are things like

1. be nice
2. allow the junior people to speak more than you do
3. the time one spends by talking during a seminar should be proportional to the product of the number of his or her X chomosomes and the number of men that he or she has sex with
and so on. Moreover, if you want to avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit, you should follow several simple rules:
1. be handsome
2. be attractive
3. don't be unattractive
Well, I admit, this is not directly related to the main topic but I wanted the blog post to be self-sufficient. The funny video under the latest hyperlink shows the actual decisive factors – and hypocrisy – behind most of the similar laws.

But let's return to the main topic. People will probably agree that visitors of seminars shouldn't be obnoxious pushy jerks who work hard to ruin the seminar – although some of them will only talk the talk but they won't walk the walk.

However, there are some recommendations that are genuinely controversial. Should junior and unknown people be "reserved" the same amount of time during a seminar? It's a difficult question and the answer depends on the personal taste as well as the cultural background.

There used to be a clear correlation between the attitude to this question and the global geopolitics. In the first, capitalist world, everyone is encouraged to speak and so on, blah blah blah. In the second, socialist world, the seminar primarily belongs to the senior folks who determine where the seminar is going, who can speak, who can't speak, and who should be silenced by force. The most senior scientist in the Soviet seminar room could have often behaved as a local copy of Joseph Stalin – although this is just a statistical statement or a "stereotype" that you couldn't blindly apply to every individual seminar or every single university.

Czechia is the true intersection of Western Europe and Eastern Europe so you shouldn't be surprised that your humble correspondent will tend to be somewhere in between. Everyone should have a chance to ask questions, express opinions, or speak. But those who are more likely to say meaningful things that will be relevant for others (and considered correct or insightful by others) should be the more likely ones to speak.

If a junior person isn't expected to speak often during a seminar, it doesn't really make her unhappy in average. Everyone knows about the calibration so if she happens to say something, she may be more proud about it.

The post-socialist world's bias towards some hierarchy during the seminar may be identified as a consequence of our training to live in a dictatorship of a sort. But this doesn't really explain all of the West-East difference. Another, simple yet important explanation why the lowly students may be more encouraged to speak in the West is that they (or their parents or sponsors) pay the tuition so they are the consumers and consumers have special rights. Follow the money.

So I do think that if there are people in the seminar room who know a lot about the topic that is being discussed or whose opinions may be interesting for others, they should be naturally more supported to speak than some (seemingly and usually really) irrelevant junior somebodies. Of course, if a junior person builds his or her name by excellent remarks during seminars, good for him or her. But it shouldn't be expected that every junior person is a winner like that. In average, a seminar organized in this way is more interesting, exciting, and useful not only for the famous participants (they usually don't have to build their ego anymore) but also for most others in the seminar room.

When I mentioned the West-East gap in this question, it is a good opportunity to recall a story that appears in a footnote of my and Prof Miloš Zahradník's textbook "Gardener+Motl: We Grow Linear Algebra". I don't want to look for the exact quote but it's a story like this:
A well-known American mathematical physicist is visiting a Soviet Univesity and he says that he is never afraid of admitting that he is being stupid when he makes a mistake. The pěrevodčik (translator) didn't understand the sentence well and he naturally translated the sentence as follows: I am never afraid to admit that my students are idiots.

This story nicely illustrates a difference between the Western and Eastern scholarly environments. The authors of this book are not afraid to admit the stupidity of both the students and the instructors whenever it shows up.
You may see the "middle road" Czech approach in the last sentence. I often hate "middle roads" and people who are proud about looking for them – because if something is in the middle of some spectrum of opinions, it doesn't mean that it is right. But this is one of the numerous exceptions where I do think that the middle road is right.

While I would have always been a welcoming, warm, hard-working host, I was always trying to maintain some high enough standards by a firm hand, too. It was always my feeling that it's both the duty, right, and responsibility of the organizer to influence the composition of speakers as well as topics. In particular, wrong talks should be very rare at prestigious schools. The speaker should always have enough room to present all the key points but if it happens that the talk is fundamentally wrong, the other participants should be allowed to learn about it, too. For example, I once invited Kirill Krasnov who gave a really silly talk about some Newtonian or similar treatment of something that should be described by quantum field theory. Andy Strominger would be grilling Krasnov most of the time – Krasnov was really contradicting the whole 20th century in physics, and so on. Of course that I agreed with Andy and I think it was very right that Krasnov faced a hard time. He should have. Andy is usually a pleasant man but it wasn't too far from some of the legendary seminars that the speakers would leave in tears.

Just one more example: Several people in our group would be sort of interested in things related to Ted Jacobson's derivation of Einstein's equations from thermodynamics (it's a more detailed, localized version of Bekenstein's links between black holes and thermodynamics; the mathematical core of Jacobson's derivation is neat and deep but he adds lots of wrong interpretations, too; to a large extent, such things became hot again when the entanglement minirevolution in quantum gravity erupted a few years ago). But he would be writing some, in my opinion silly, papers about "some new version of aether" for a year. I told him it wasn't high enough quality research and it was really off-topic for a Duality Seminar, too. I could see that people like Jacobson aren't used to hear similar things too often. He didn't speak at that particular seminar, if I remember well. Later, I would learn that one isn't always allowed to do certain things – I was truly harassed when some lousy students were getting the bad grades they deserved. Grade inflation isn't just about the relaxed atmosphere – grade inflation is often a bloody killer who stabs the instructors who don't want to surrender.

If I return to the topic of people who interrupt the seminars, well, like many of you, I have experienced lots of people who were asking excellent questions and whose presence on the seminar may have been more important than the presence of the speakers. I don't want to be too specific. But there have been trolls, too.

An example I can't forget didn't occur during a seminar but during a graduate quantum mechanics course at Rutgers. The State of New Jersey encourages older people to learn so they may attend graduate schools and pay no tuition. I had several of these 60-or-so-year-old classmates over the years. One of them would interrupt the instructor all the time. As far as I remember, every single question he asked was totally stupid but there's only one question I remember really well.

The instructor would divide the blackboard to three parts, for three subtopics, in the same way as the "tall" version of the Czech flag is divided to three regions. The obnoxious old classmate would yell: What the hell does the big "Y" mean? Many of us laughed out loud and the instructor needed some time to realize what the student meant by the question. Such things inevitably happen when someone who is proud about having learned the Latin alphabet – including the last two letters – attends a talk that may be slightly more demanding than what would be OK for him.

Of course that the atmosphere during the seminars – or some particular responsible organizers or moderators – should suppress this kind of behavior. Somewhat relaxed seminars where various ideas may be raised are better than seminars where the speaker just blindly reproduces a memorized monologue. However, one shouldn't forget that the purpose of seminars is to spread some new knowledge, not to allow everyone to build his or her ego by speaking up, regardless of the value of the content. Interruptions and questions from the people who understand the issue less than the average participant are likely to reduce the quality of the seminar.

And that's the memo.

snail feedback (18) :

I read Sean Carroll books on General Relativity and I liked it more than any other book I have ever read on that topic. I just wanted to say this because I saw that sometimes you are a bit critical of him.

I liked his book (GR) also, but then in his blog post and popular books, he can say some pretty silly things at times.

Dark white then. White would be too bright. :)

One significant difference between the American seminars and what one hears some of the Soviet ones used to be is length. The Americans seminars are usually only one hour long, so they leave limited room for questions to begin with. The Soviet ones could supposedly last several hours, which left a lot more time to discuss/tear apart the talk (and the speaker) one equation at a time, so a lot more discussion would take place. How long are the Czech seminars?

Also, what are German seminars like? The Germans are a bit different culturally from the Anglo-Saxons, so it's theoretically possible that their talks would have a distinct flavor.

Hey Lubos, sorry for the OT but I stumped on this essay by Rovelli:

and I remembered the good days when you used to attack the LQG crackpots almost on a daily basis. But if you don't do it anymore because you don't want to get angry reading that string theory is a random human creation while LQG is conservative of the deep principles of XX century theoretical physics, I advice you to not follow the link ;)

Well Lubos, I think your picture of the West is simply full of sît. Of course that in every quality group of people those who have to say more will say more. Most well educated people know it on their own (There is also a self-regulating feature called self confidence) and in a healthy environment the obnoxious idiots will be stopped by the leaders. If the leaders are idiots themselves then that is too bad but that can always happen in every culture (more likely in a dictatorship of course, especially in a non hard science, while I expect the physics seminars in the Sowjet Union have been quite good as well.). I remember the scene in Feynmans book where a bunch of excellent physicists discuss some difficult technical problem and the meeting is over very quickly because everybody says what he has to say and not more a sentence more or less. Do you think the German economy could be succesful (today) if business meetings where mostly held otherwise or the German science results could be so good (in the past) if the seminars and lectures were held otherwise? You may have made some negative experiences in the US
but once again if only the Czechs knew the golden middleground than they should be by far more succesful than the other nations.

One cannot imagine a circumstance more awful than an ugly child presenting that the Emperor is naked. How much of the National Institutes of Health would survive if it were required to present results rather than promises? Ditto religion, government economics, SUSY...

"The State of New Jersey encourages older people to learn so they may attend graduate schools and pay no tuition." Government exists to squander valuable resources lest the able obtain what the deserving disdain.

I think you should change the background, foreground and the text to black. I think that would be appropriate.

To me it is most awful when the emperess/or is accused of being naked but is actually fully dressed - long johns and all.

I can hardly imagine anything more pleasing than a scenario in which a fat or skinny but obnoxiously self-assured emperor has his tightly woven fake fabrics verbally stripped (or ripped) off, for all to see. ;-|

Holy crap, he doesn't want just nurture and spread complete crackpottery about quantum gravity. He also wants to unify science and humanities. I am sure that the humanities types are more friendly towards his pseudophysics babbling.

I used to spend lots of time with this stuff but I have depleted one life of immunity towards these things and I have also realized that I was wasting my time because the human stupidity exceeds anything I could imagine.

The chance that generic readers of similar publications will ever understand that it's possible for physics to learn certain seemingly abstract things and one may actually prove that e.g. nothing works in LQG is zero. People are just monkeys with a shortage of body hair.

I am sufficiently disillusioned in the US because of the ongoing erosion of freedom here that "boasting" is hardly the right term to describe my analysis. It is simply that in some countries the power has a chance to change hands, and in some it hasn't. Multiple parties that don't provide for the possibility of the power changing hands are just the modernized version of where past autocrats might have prefered just one.

And getting kicked out of a job because of what you said is precisely about the freedom of speech.

Physics is so theory based that a huge learning curve exists that helps define junior versus senior, whereas in the nearly completely creative empirical science of synthetic chemistry and nanofabrication, there is a less clear central theory to follow and more sense of raw discovery and playing around with quickly testable ideas so even juniors with lots of creative ambition can stir things up with naive comments that are appreciated if they reveal suggestions about matters most take for granted but may be a bit wrong about. There is also a gotcha effect that many professors present to juniors as puzzles to compete with each other to answer with some new idea. That graphene was discovered for instance with Scotch tape, well, professors of organic chemistry, nanotech or materials science certainly appreciate lots of comments in seminars since even dumb ideas aren't always so dumb when there's less established theory to trip over.

Harvard was a lot more formal than Columbia though, since the groups interacted less within the chemistry department, weren't even friends really. We did need physicists and the bunny suit labs at MIT though. Harvard physics professor Mara Prentiss was our main link to theory and big optical benches when I was in the Whitesides group for three years. The physicists were so terribly smart it was intimidating but that was the first place I heard the term wave packet and just hearing it was a delightful mind opener. But who invented stuff? We did!

Physics is so theory based that a huge learning curve exists that helps define junior versus senior, whereas in the nearly completely creative empirical science of synthetic chemistry and nanofabrication, there is a less clear central theory to follow and more sense of raw discovery and playing around with quickly testable ideas so even juniors with lots of creative ambition can stir things up with naive comments that are appreciated if they reveal suggestions about matters most take for granted but may be a bit wrong about. There is also a gotcha effect that many professors present to juniors as puzzles to compete with each other to answer with some new idea. That graphene was discovered for instance with Scotch tape, well, professors of organic chemistry, nanotech or materials science certainly appreciate lots of comments in seminars since even dumb ideas aren't always so dumb when there's less established theory to trip over.

Harvard was a lot more formal than Columbia though, since the groups interacted less within the chemistry department, weren't even friends really. We did need physicists and the bunny suit labs at MIT though. Harvard physics professor Mara Prentiss was our main link to theory and big optical benches when I was in the Whitesides group for three years. The physicists were so terribly smart it was intimidating but that was the first place I heard the term wave packet and just hearing it was a delightful mind opener. But who invented stuff? We did!

KISS.

I don't understand the commentary coming out of England how this would be a blow to David Cameron if he lost Scotland. Scotland is sending one Conservative MP. This would alter the map considerably and boost Cameron's chances for reelection, though tight not UKIP is making significant gains.