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March Meeting 2008

I am now in New Orleans, for the 2008 American Physical Society March Meeting. This is a huge conference, lasting 5 days and attended by perhaps 7000 physicists. Most attendees give some sort of presentation, the bulk of which are contributed 10-minute talks; this is the first year that I’m attending without giving a presentation. This meeting only covers what is known as condensed matter physics–the folks doing particle, nuclear, and atomic physics have their own meetings.

Each day, there are three large time blocks of talks, beginning at 8am, 11:15am, and 2:30pm (although Friday only has the first two blocks). Blocks are assigned letters: A, B, and D for Monday, and continuing alphabetically until X and Y for Friday. Poster Sessions and special evening sessions also get their own letters; year-to-year, the assignment of the letters varies. Within each block, individual sessions are numbered, with numbers corresponding to the rooms used. If a room is not used one block, the number will be skipped: this year there are sessions A33 and A35 but no A34; there are, however, sessions P34 (on Wednesday) and V34 (Thursday), both in room 226 of the Convention Center.

Invited talks last 30 minutes, with 6 minutes for questions, contributed talks last 10 minutes with 2 minutes for questions. Talks within each session, of course, are grouped around a common topic. Each block runs for a full three hours and, for an entirely contributed session, can have as many as 15 talks. If you stayed for a full session and then went to the beginning of the next session, you’d get all of a 15 minute break between them.

To accommodate several thousand talks during the 14 3-hour blocks, the conference has, this year, as many as 39 parallel sessions running; last year there were as many as 43 parallel sessions. All total, this year, there are 518 sessions of talks. For each block, sessions 1 through 7 have 4 or 5 invited talks and no contributed talks; other sessions will have zero to two invited talks and as many as 15 contributed talks. All together, there are 729 invited talks this year in the regular sessions, and 5193 contributed talks.

Of course, some popular topics have more than 15 talks, and in this case, there can be multiple sessions with the same title, usually in the same room, with roman numerals appended. This year, in what must be some sort of record for such numbered sessions, there are 16 sessions on “Carbon Nanotubes and Related Materials.” Session 29 of every single block is devoted to this, and blocks B and D double up with Session 30. In these 16 sessions, there are 15 invited talks and 195 contributed talks.

The posters are treated as an afterthought. There’s no time set aside to look at posters; poster authors are instructed to be present during the third time block for each of the three poster sessions, which are, as a result, very lightly attended. Nevertheless, there are 1032 posters to be presented. Some physics bloggers have written about the poster-versus-talk question, and although people in other scientific fields can have a useful discussion about the relative merits of each, the culture of the March Meeting, which highly values the talk, seems unlikely to change.

Since the APS lets anyone who wishes to give a talk do so, any prestige associated from giving a talk is purely illusory (unless it’s necessary to convince the bureaucrats at one’s institution to let you go to the meeting in the first place). The prestige comes only from being sorted into a prestigious session, and getting a large audience. But, in the case with really popular topics, such as the aforementioned “Carbon Nanotubes and Related Materials” series, you still can’t see all of it, and even if you maximized your attendance, at 197 talks, you wouldn’t be able to see talks on any other topic, nor visit the trade show. And I’d imagine that a good number of those 197 talks wouldn’t actually be worth watching.

As far as I know, few other scientific organizations with conferences this big let anyone who wants to give a talk: more commonly, the only talks are invited presentations and the contributed sessions are posters, and there is a set time and some incentive (such as free beer) to attend the posters. I wouldn’t mind seeing the APS adopt this system. Certainly, one advantage of giving a talk is that it doesn’t have to be finished before you leave for the airport. But with 5299 talks, and the possibility to see at most 210 contributed or 70 invited talks, means there’s going to be stuff scheduled at the same time that you want to see. I’ve even known a session chair to be scheduled to give a talk in a different session as the one s/he is chairing! In the nanotubes case, it would probably be easier to scan through the 183 contributed papers as posters, looking at the titles and figures, and decide on the few you’d like to read in-depth, than to make it through 197 talks.

Posters help at the other end of the popularity scale as well, those people working in less popular fields. The attendance at talks can be quite varied, especially for those doing less trendy physics. I’ve been in sessions where the audience is about 6 people, usually four people waiting for their turn to talk and the other two labmates of the speaker. If there are only a handful of people interested in one particular topic, a poster session is more conducive to mutual discussion of each presentation than a handful of 10-minute talks in a sparsely attended session that’s only loosely bound together around a broad theme. And you can certainly fit more substance into a poster than into a 10-minute talk. I know there are several people (my graduate advisor, for example) who think that the March Meeting is so large, and that 10 minute talks are so insubstantial, that the March Meeting is not worth bothering with at all.

But for now, talks it is. Even for 10 minute talks, these days the overwhelming majority are given with laptops and Powerpoint. In 2005, it seemed, there was an equal balance between laptops and viewgraphs. In 2006, I definitely felt in the minority as a viewgraph-user, and I think for my session I was the first to use the overhead projector. Last year, I finally broke down and used a laptop (although apparently I had a problem with the display resolution). I kept tally: last year I saw 20 invited talks, 58 contributed talks, and only 3 used viewgraphs. Of course, with such a packed schedule there really can be no tolerance for slipping from the schedule, so those whose laptops refuse to behave are essentially out of luck. In fact, last year I did see a presenter use his entire 12 alloted minutes trying to re-boot his laptop and get the external display to work. (There is an AV ready room, in which presenters are encouraged to make sure their settings are correct.)

The posters are held in the same space as the trade show, where scientific equipment vendors have booths. The vendors (and their wares) tend to be the same from year to year. Perhaps the most interesting vendors are the scientific publishers, who have for sale all the new physics books of the year. I have a bookbuying habit, and usually pick up three or four new books at the March Meeting, but so far I’ve yet to actually read a book I’ve bought. The vendors hand out disappointingly little swag. And there is no conference swag: all you get when you register is a badge and the schedule book.

One soon realizes that the additional activities: receptions, special sessions, and the like, are also concurrently scheduled, and tend to stay at the same time slots from year to year. The only event I regularly attend is the alumni reunion for my graduate program, which is always held on Tuesday evening.

My strategy, for choosing what to see, is first to look at sessions in my research area. Then, I look for talks given by people I know personally, and also talks by people who I know to give interesting talks. Finally, I look through the lists of invited talks to see which have interesting titles. I might look over the abstracts for the talks or sessions that look interesting, but it’s hard to look through many abstracts beforehand.

To accommodate the large number of presentations, contributed abstracts are restricted to 1300 characters, about a paragraph. Until a few years ago, these were printed and bound and distributed to all conference attendees as two volumes, known as the Bulletin of the American Physical Society (BAPS), each of which resembled a phone book. To cut down on the bulk, they tried in recent years to simply give everyone CD-ROMs while having terminals with an electronic version of the BAPS are set up throughout the conference site. Now, we just get a bound volume with abstract titles; it resembles the phone book of a small city.

Of course now one can also download the program contents beforehand, and in order to facilitate my own planning, I wrote a few tcl scripts to parse the list of sessions and the list of invited talks and to make more readable forms of these. (If they didn’t require so much hand-tweaking each year, I’d post them–anyone who wants them, though, I’d be happy to share.) It’s in part from these scripts that I was able to get the numbers I quote here.

So what’s in it for me? Perhaps the most important thing I get out of the March Meeting is a chance to see what’s happening in a broad swath of contemporary condensed matter physics. The talks are as hit and miss as talks anywhere, and even if some of the same information could be gleaned by reading journals, I simply don’t have the time to read many journal articles outside my immediate field of interest. Of course, meetings are also good chances to catch up with grad school friends who are now dispersed at institutions across the country. But no matter what I end up doing, I find that the March Meeting always rejuvenates my enthusiasm for physics, and provides a motivational boost to continue my research back in the lab.


1 sister of physics brothers { 03.10.08 at 5:03 pm }

I opened the electronic BAPS and it was all gibberish on my Mac…Doesn’t make a good impression, especially if you are trying to get media interested in new discoveries. But maybe media isn’t interested anyway.

2 rg { 03.11.08 at 7:53 am }

Tom — be sure and ride the Canal streetcar up to City Park and also the Saint Charles streetcar through the Garden District. Saint Charles now goes as far as Napoleon Avenue, though I think RTA will restore service along the full length of the line to, Carrollton, soon.

3 thm { 03.13.08 at 12:43 am }

SofPB: hmmm, the BAPS pdf works just fine on my Mac. But it’s not really the source I’d send media to anyways.

rg: Actually, the St. Charles streetcar is open all the way to Carrollton now, and I had a break this afternoon so I rode it all the way out and back. The French Quarter, while unique, is sort of sleazy; downtown New Orleans is sort of like any downtown, with lots of space wasted for surface parking, and the area around the convention center is ugly industrial. But riding the St. Charles streetcar it seems like New Orleans is the most beautiful city in the United States!

4 rg { 03.13.08 at 8:50 am }

I agree re: riding the Saint Charles and New Orleans being beautiful. If you have time, walk past the French Quarter towards Esplanade Avenue into the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. It’s much more authentic and Esplanade Avenue and Elysian Fields Avenue are beautiful.

5 sister of physics brothers { 03.13.08 at 12:45 pm }

I know the BAPS is not the best outreach channel,, but I work with PR people (in science and healthcare) who browse, especially when it’s a topic they don’t know about, ie, physics.
The path to find PR information about the APS meeting, at least when I looked just prior to the meeting, is not consistent, nor is it direct, pulled together or attention-getting. (I do have slightly older Acrobat; could be that, but again for PR purposes (and to reach your members or the public who may have old stuff, too), you make sure your stuff works on many platforms/browsers/version. It is very easy to back-save.)

6 March Meeting 2009 — metcaffeination { 04.02.09 at 11:56 pm }

[…] for writing about it is rapidly closing. It was held in Pittsburgh this year, following the same format as last year. The meeting seems to be getting bigger each year: when I first attended, in 2003, […]

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