by Jonas Helsen
A few weeks ago I found myself boarding a series of planes that would take me from the Netherlands to pretty much the furthest point reachable from this starting point that still includes dry land: Sydney, Australia. I wasn’t going there entirely of my own accord. Rather I had been invited to speak at a quantum information theory workshop called Coogee. For those knowledgeable of the Sydney region, it is indeed named after a beach and yes the conference takes place less than a stone’s throw away from said beach.
I had spent the days and weeks before vacillating about the topic of my talk. The reserved time was a full hour and the organisers explicitly asked to prioritise topics that were not quite finished projects but rather had some open questions to them. I had such a topic, one I had recently gotten quite excited by but I was worried that the question to answer ratio skewed a little too heavily towards the side of “all questions, no answers” and the few results I did have were uncertain and preliminary. This makes for interesting speaking material but also significantly raises the odds of some more experienced researcher interrupting me halfway through the talk and notifying me that my ideas were all wrong, or worse: that they had been pondered upon decades earlier and subsequently satisfactorily resolved. In the end I swallowed my nerves and gave the talk. As per usual my nervousness was unfounded and I had a great time. People were very kind and interested and asked lots of questions and I ended up learning a lot about the problem just from giving the talk and discussing it with smart people afterwards. And that I think is why conferences are so important.
The importance of being in the same room with someone
Science conferences are often seen as a little bit of an indulgence. A large group of people gathers from all over the world, with flights, accommodation and food paid for, simply to hang out and discuss problems: something they could also do over email. To add insult to injury these conferences are often held in exotic locations and include decidedly unscientific activities such as conference dinners and pub crawls. Surely all of this is a distraction from serious scientific work (on top of being very expensive). A counterpoint to this would be, in my opinion, that science is, like all human activity, a fundamentally social endeavour. Humans perform best when they can share their experiences with like minded people. Often the most interesting things you learn are not said in the talks at all, or written down in any paper. Rather they are tips and tricks and experiences with various techniques and methods, a sort of scientific folklore that is handed down only in an informal and oral manner. Moreover, modern science often requires extremely detailed expertise in a large amount of different areas. It is very hard to know everything and often a very hard problem can be made easy by meeting someone who has the right knowledge. This means that part of being a scientist is having a mental repository of other people’s knowledge and skills so that you can call on them if you need them. However, it seems that in order to find out who has which skills there is nothing that beats in person contact. And since science is inherently a worldwide endeavour (there are simply not enough of us to stick to a single area or country) this often means long travels.
What’s that smell?
And of course while conferences can be nice they can also be very tiring and stressful. When I arrived in Australia my plane landed at 7:30 in the morning and the conference started at 9 sharp. This gave me just enough time to take a shower and put on some new clothes (I had been traveling for almost 30 hours at that point) and then I had to immediately dive into meeting dozens of new people and run at full thinking capacity for the rest of the day. Needless to say that I slept like a log regardless of jet lag that day. During bigger conferences it is not abnormal to see people taking naps in between sessions. They can be seen slumped in couches, on chairs and even on the floor if nothing else is available.
In short, conferences aren’t always glamorous, and they are rather expensive (and not to mention bad for the planet), but they are the premier means of disseminating your research and getting immediate feedback and new ideas. Not to mention they are great for making friends.
About Jonas Helsen
Jonas Helsen is an aspiring theorist in the Wehner group where he works on verifying quantum computers. In his free time he enjoys improvisational theater and pretending to be a superhero. He likes the Netherlands but wishes they wouldn’t put peanuts in everything.