Blogging ICHEP 2010

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

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How can there be no questions?

I’m sitting here, on the last day of ICHEP, listening to some excellent summary talks. One of the experimental neutrino talks just went by – excellent (sorry, no link because I don’t have internet as I write this). But there were no questions. I’ve noticed this for many of the talks at the plenary. Or if there is a question, it is the “if you doubled your dataset what would happen to that 2 sigma excess?”

How can this be? There are almost 1000 people watching these talks, many of them experts in the topics being discussed. And no questions? Physics is built on questions! This is how we learn – almost never is something so clear that we don’t need questions! Heck, the whole field is structured around this. We invite experts to our University to give a seminar so we can have their undivided attention for a whole day to ask them questions. We go to workshops so we can ask each other questions and learn. We write papers and then respond to the papers with letters and more papers which are basically a slow version of Q&A. So what is going on here?

I don’t know, of course, however I’m going to take a stab:

  • Exhaustion. It is the end of a full week of conference. We’ve all be talking, discussing, and thinking about these topics for a solid week and we need a break for our brains to process everything.
  • Embarrassment. There are 1000 people here. Many of them very important people in the field (i.e. they think you are stupid and your chances of funding go down). So you’d better make sure you have a good question before you ask it.
  • These are summary talks. The speaker is often presenting a huge amount of information in a very short amount of time. It is likely they are an expert in the topic they are presenting, but given the volume of information discussed in such a short amount of time, it is not likely they know all the details. The people who are experts on each topic gave talks in the plenary sessions. Indeed, there were lots more questions there than there are in the plenary sessions.

I’m sure there are other possibilities as well.


  1. What about the effect of the wireless signal strenght having been increased in the auditorium? :-)

  2. Really? My portable can't see any difference in the signal. :( :( I have to sit way way in the back in order to get a signal. From this vantage point I can see most people and there are amazingly few portables opened for a physics conference. :-) -Gordon.

  3. What I'm actually surprised of is that the session chairs don't feel compelled to ask at least a question themselves of nothing is coming from the audience.

  4. Well there's little point of asking questions here at ICHEP. Whenever an interesting discussion starts to unfold, convenors cut if off with "no time, no time". This was particularly sad during the parallel CP-violation session, where a lot of people could add interesting comments but staying on time was the priority.

  5. Right - I've been a session chair before (not here at ICHEP) and it is always a debate I have: should I add a question or not? At the moment we are running behind, so Jester is right: the chair is often quite happy there is no question. This is not th eplace for discussion... :(

  6. Well, there are several additional reasons explaining the lack of questions.

    * Lack of competence. The participants just don't understand it because it's beyond their limited specialization and the talks manage to review too much so that any question would show that the person who asks doesn't know enough to even understand the talk in its entirety.

    * Excess of competence. The participants who understand the talk understand is so well that they know everything and if they don't know something, they know that the speaker won't know the answer, either. They have communicated previously and asked the questions via the Internet. I actually think that this is a legitimate issue in modern science. People travel too much these days - way too much than what actually helps to significantly increase the flow of information.

    * Flawed organization. Many questions at other conferences are/were prepared, staged, or organized by the session chairs, and these ones just don't do this job of theirs. ;-)

  7. there is no dumber question than, "What will happen to your 2 sigma excess, after you've doubled your data set?"

  8. Lumo, I didn't get your 2nd point. You seem to be saying there are no questions because everyone has alredy talked in person - which is great (and exactly what we need). But then you say that we travel too much (which is also probably true) - but isn't it travel that gets us in contact to ask all those questions?

    Staged questions? :-) I guess I've never been to a conference where I've seen stagged questions except as a joke... -Gordon.


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