Blogging ICHEP 2010

A collective forum about the 35th edition of
the International Conference on High Energy Physics (Paris, July 2010)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

On and off (stage)

As you might have noticed reading the posts by Mu-Chun and Georg, summer is a the heyday season for physics conferences and workshops. This is not only because we like to gather in gorgeous places that we can enjoy where the sun shines (Athens, Sardinia... or, yes, Paris), but also for a more mundane reason : many physicists lecture at university, and summer is the only time of the year where they can leave the classroom and travel to week-long international conferences without messing up their teaching schedule -- or their colleagues'.

I like to think of conferences as theatre plays, or operas. After all, they are all cultural events, aren't they ? You have the stage (the conference rooms), the actors (the speakers, with their share of drama kings and queens, happy jesters and uninspired declamatory comedians), the spectators (the good-humoured or bad-tempered participants), the director and conductor (the lucky organisers)... and the technicians taking care of everything basically, from the curtains to the lighting, passing through the costume and the make-up (the administrative and technical staff). And quite often, feelings are quite different on which side of the curtain you stand. At best, the innocent participant can sit and relax, enjoying the happy spectacle of a smoothly-run conference. But off-stage, eveybody jumps up and down like madmen to check minute details of costumes (or microphones) or to prevent major disasters looming (like the crash of the computer network).

Inasmuch as some plays become experiences of a lifetime, and some shows remain just a pleasant evening out, a thin line exists between run-of-the-mill conferences and truly memorable ones. Part of the job of the organising committee consists in gathering the right people talking on the right subjects at the right moment, and another part to propose the right social events with the right mood... Well, you need a bit of luck too. But no matter how outstanding the speakers are, and how exciting the topics turn out to be, the organising committee must also take care of another essential aspect : infrastructure. The best play in the world needs the theater to be open and working in full order.

Murphy's law being unfortunately well obeyed in real life, bad things happen on that side, but you should solve them before they affect the participants. This is a tough lesson that I learned taking part in the organisation of conferences before the ICHEP one. My more personal version is : never organise a conference in Paris in october or november. Or you will be in the same nightmare as Mu-Chun, because autumn is the heyday season for strikes in France as much as summer is for physics conferences. Fortunately (or thoughtfully) ICHEP takes place in July... At the same time as many theater and opera festivals taking place in Southern France like Avignon or Aix-en-Provence, but I do not expect a harsh competition from that side.

Another key element that cannot go astray under any circumstance : computers. Obviously, you need a good internet connection for the participants to check out mails and papers regularly (in Paris, if not in Sardinia, as mentionned by Georg). But with more than 900 participants and almost 600 talks and posters to be presented, you need a powerful tool to manage the huge data-base of people, title, places, times... and slides required by our very dense program (we have only 3 days of parallel sessions !). And for particle physics, all this rhymes with Integrated Digital Conference, or Indico, born at CERN, like so many great computer inventions. The CERN computer team has been incredibly efficient in designing and improving the Indico system that we use, Actually, by its size and its length, ICHEP is a good benchmark to test their new version of the software, and we spent a bit of time helping them to tune the system to our own needs.

Therefore, for physics as much as for many other aspects, ICHEP as a true première... And like for all premieres, both the participants and the organisers look forward to seing the play, that is, the results that will be presented for the first time in summertime Paris !

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