Talks, and what they’re good for

It’s an ill-kept secret that basically everyone in academia is a specialist. Nobody is just a “physicist”, or just a “high energy theorist”, or even just a “string theorist”. Even when I describe myself as something as specific as an “amplitudeologist”, I’m still over-generalizing: there’s a lot of amplitudes work out there that I would be hard-pressed to understand, and even harder-pressed to reproduce.

In the end, each of us is only going to understand a small subset of the vastness of our subject. This is problematic when it comes to attending talks.

Rarely, we get to attend talks about something we completely understand. Generally, we’re the ones giving those talks. The rest of the time, even at conferences for people of our particular specialty, we’re going to miss some fraction of the content, either because we don’t understand it or because we don’t find it interesting.

The question then becomes, why attend the talk in the first place? Why spend an hour of your time when you’re not getting an hour’s worth of content?

There are a couple reasons, of varying levels of plausibility.

One is that it’s always nice to know what other subfields are doing. It lets one feel connected to one’s compatriots, and it helps one navigate one’s career. That said, it’s unclear whether going to talks is really the best way of doing this. If you just want to know what other people are doing, you can always just watch to see what they publish. That doesn’t take an hour, unless you’re really dedicated to wasting time.

A more important benefit is increasing levels of familiarity. These days, I can productively pay attention to the first quarter of a talk, half if it’s particularly good. When I first got to grad school, I’d probably tune out after the first five minutes. The more talks you see on a subject, the more of the talk makes sense, and the more you get out of it. That’s part of why even fairly specialized people who are further along in their careers can talk on a wide range of subjects: often, they’ve intentionally kept themselves aware of what’s going on in other subfields, going to talks, reading papers, and engaging in conversation. This is a valuable end goal, since there is some truth to the hype about the benefits of interdisciplinarity in providing unconventional solutions to problems. That said, this is a gradual process. The benefit of one individual talk is tiny, and it doesn’t seem worth an hour of time. Much like exercise, it’s the habit that provides the benefit, not any individual session.

So in the end, talks are almost always unsatisfying. But we keep going to them, because they make us better scientists.


One thought on “Talks, and what they’re good for

  1. Daniel

    That’s interesting. I never thought about attending talks regularly as a sort of exercise routine.

    I guess i’ll start going more (more then zero, that is) even if most of them are not in my field.



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