Preposterous Universe

Sunday, September 26, 2004
On the road again

I tend to travel a lot for work purposes, spreading the word about the accelerating universe to rapt audiences across the country. And I like the travel, and enjoy giving the talks, especially to people who are still skeptical about this whole dark-energy thing and appreciate a balanced telling of the story. But it does take time, and I am not an efficient traveler; on flights I am more likely to curl up with a good novel than to pull out the laptop and work on a paper or a referee report. So I promised myself that I would do no more than two trips per month from now on. As it turns out, in the next five weeks I will be visiting Boston (Brandeis), Tucson (University of Arizona), Urbana-Champaign, Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania), Baltimore (Johns Hopkins), Pasadena (Caltech), and San Diego (UCSD). So you can judge for yourself how successful I've been at keeping my own promise.

It's a shame in a way, because this is my favorite time of year to be on campus. For one thing, September is a little oasis of calm in Chicago's playfully rambunctious weather patterns, and the lake and the sky are glowing magnificently. But at any university, it is always a thrill to see the campus come alive with the students returning (or arriving for the first time) after the summer exodus. We start late at Chicago because we're on a quarter system, with one quarter before New Year's and two after, so this week is actually the first week of school. I'm teaching Physics 300, "The Teaching and Learning of Physics," a required course for first-year graduate students in which we help them learn how to be good teachers. It's great for the students, if only because it conveys the impression that the department cares about the quality of teaching. (Sadly, we cannot force the faculty to take the course.) And it's great for me, as I get to meet all of the new graduate students. They are full of enthusiasm spiced with trepidation, and contemplating hard questions like whether they should refer to professors by their first names. (Answer: yes, but with exceptions, and the rules concerning exceptions can only be learned from experience.)

Speaking of traveling: a common prediction of technological triumphalists is that easy access to computers and comprehensive connectivity will eventually do away with the notion of a "conference" at which people physically assemble. From the evidence of the recent DPF meeting I attended, the reality is precisely the inverse. Conferences will continue as scheduled, but members of the assembled audience will each sit with their laptops open, connected through their wireless links to the internet, ignoring the speaker as they always have. The flaw in the triumphalists' prediction is the assumption that people don't like to travel, they just want the content you get from the conference talks. It's just the opposite: people do like to travel, and especially to shmooze at the coffee breaks, but they hate to be stuck in talks. Now that technology has liberated us from that onerous requirement, conferences will become more popular than ever. At the end of each talk, of course, some member of the audience will still ask a question that is really more of a comment.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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