One of the best and worst duties of a scientist is to go to international conferences. It’s one of the best duties because you get to go overseas at relatively little cost to yourself (in my immediate case Adelaide) and enjoy lots of freebies (such as hotel swimming pools, shiraz, expenses-paid meals, more free pens than you can imagine…). It’s one of the worst because the price you pay for the freebies is sitting through hours and days of some of the most tedious talks you can imagine.
Now don’t misunderstand me – I’ve attended some excellent physics talks in my time. But I have to say they are in the minority. After two hours sitting through the average conference session I often feel like doing my own physics experiment involving my fingers and a power socket in order to wake myself up.
When I was a young physicist, I thought that I found physics talks difficult because I didn’t know the subject well enough. Now I’m older, I realize it’s nothing to do with my knowledge – it’s simply that the average physicist can’t communicate things well. For example, we have this unhelpful obsession with MS powerpoint. Simply throwing information onto a projector screen, even with movies, doesn’t get across the subject to the audience – at least not to me. Fundamentally, I think the problem is that the average speaker at a conference assumes the audience knows too much – yes, we may all be physicists, but we are not all familiar with the tiny details of every area of physics. Make it a bit more basic, and we might be getting somewhere.
Rant over; later I’ll tell you about some of the things that have been presented well here, such as the depressingly predictable correlation between investment in solar power research and the price of crude oil.