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March Meeting 2009

I’ve been back from the 2009 APS March Meeting for two weeks now and so the window of relevance 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, there were about 5600 attendees; this year’s meeting drew 7000.

For a number of years now I’ve taken the online Epitome and Invited Speaker List and run them through tcl scripts to make TeX files that give me speaker and session information in a format I think is more useful. This also allows me to look at overall meeting statistics: There were more sessions this year, 558, than in previous years; last year there were 517 sessions. What seems to be growing most sharply are invited talks: there were 825 this year, compared to about 730 in each of the previous three years. Not surprisingly, this corresponded to an increase in the number of sessions with 5 invited talks: there were 95 such sessions this year, about 75 in each of the previous 3 years, and only 15 back in 2005.

I only stayed through Wednesday of the meeting this year, taking an evening flight back home. I was rather irritated to find that the Cornell alumni reunion was held on Wednesday night, instead of Tuesday, like it always had been. I don’t know if this had even been published before I made my travel reservations, although I don’t know that I would have stayed an extra night just for that.

The disappearance of viewgraphs now appears complete. I was one of a handful of holdouts who was still using viewgraphs as late as 2006. Last year, I only saw one talk given using viewgraphs and this year I saw zero. There are still overhead projectors in the rooms, but they are kept on the floor beside the table upon which the computer projector sits. It’s amusing to read the note in the 2002 newsletter of the Division of Condensed Matter Physics:

More and more scientists want computer projection for their talks. This past year, computer projectors were available in invited session rooms only. Projectors are very expensive (~$400/ day/session) and would raise the registration fee at the conference significantly if placed in all rooms. Also, set-up time between talks makes staying on a 12 minute schedule for contributed talks very problematic. APS will continue to increase the availability of computer projection, but will not commit totally to them until price and technical interfacing problems become more tractable.

To be sure, there are problematic computers and I did see talks where roughly half of the time was taken up with computer fiddling. 

On the topic of presentations, one thing that lots of speakers do, which really bugs me, is to show a graph of some raw data, usually a spectrum of something taken with a well-established experimental technique, but without giving any explanation. If I don’t use a technique myself, even if I know in principle how it works, I don’t know if it’s considered good or unexpected or interesting or disappointing if your graph has wiggles, or is flat, or has a bump in a particular place, or a big spike, or a big dip, or if it shifts a little as you twiddle some parameter, or shifts a lot. Context, my fellow physicists! Tell us what your measurement technique does, what shows up in your graph, what ordinary data would look like, and why your particular measurement is interesting.

I also ended my one-year physics-book-buying drought. I buy interesting physics books knowing that I’m not also buying the time it takes to work through them. I have one book purchase from two years ago that I’ve made a concerted effort to actually work through, but am perhaps only 20% done with it. And it’s not even a very challenging book. But I went ahead this year anyway, and took advantage of Cambridge University Press’s Wednesday afternoon buy-2-get-50%-off sale to pick up an otherwise ridiculously overpriced Elasticity with Mathematica and Geometric Algebra for Physicists, and also bought Group Theory: Applications to the Physics of Condensed Matter.

On to Portland
I’m looking forward to visiting Portland for next year’s March Meeting. I consider Portland one of my favorite cities but in reality all I’ve only spend several hours there at a time, waiting to change trains. But with a streetcar and Powell’s, who couldn’t love Portland? I had been sure that, a couple of years ago, I also saw Seattle on the list of upcoming March Meeting locations, but it seems to be gone now.


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