September 6, 2005

Speaking on Theory, Theory on Speaking

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at September 6, 2005 6:36 PM

You may be wondering where I disappeared to, perhaps imagining that I was pursuing adventure and excitement during the long weekend. This was true during the first half, but Sunday afternoon I had to face the fact that I had been assigned the first group seminar of the semester. (In fact, I was due to give a talk towards the end of last semester, but managed to put it off for about five consecutive weeks until I was saved by the end of the term. Unfortunately I was still at the front of the queue when we started up again.)

For a topic I chose to review an 18-page theory paper: partly because I had no better ideas, partly because I wanted to do something relatively impressive, and partly out of sheer masochism. I would have expected such a task to consume my entire weekend rather than just half of it (and much of today), but fortunately the paper was not as daunting as it looked. This was for several reasons:

  1. As theory papers go, this one was not very dense. There was lots of text to go with each equation, and they mostly explained the algebra involved.
  2. After establishing the major equations governing the problem, they confine their solution to a particularly easy special case.
  3. For this special case, they give a "formal solution": i.e., when they get to a difficult integral equation, they declare themselves done with the equivalent of "if we knew how to solve this, here's what it would look like".
  4. Having obtained the formal solution, they set their computers on the problem, leaving the second half of the paper primarily to an avalanche of plots illustrating the numerical results.

My strategy for assembling my talk was to start by putting the numerical plots on Powerpoint slides, so that if I ran out of preparation time I could do the rest of the talk on the whiteboard. It turned out I had time to put everything into Powerpoint, which was nice since my whiteboard handwriting isn't terribly legible. For a denser theory paper, I would certainly use the whiteboard since it's tough to get the pacing right for mathematical derivations in Powerpoint. Also it's annoying to construct equations on the computer; I try to copy them from the PDF of the original article when possible, but sometimes I have to fill in steps or rearrange something into a clearer form.

I've noticed lately that when I'm giving a talk or a speech I seem to go into a kind of trance where I construct and deliver sentences without thinking about them on a conscious level. (This is not normally the case unless I am sufficiently inebriated.) This is absolutely essential because I can shut down the conscious part of my mind and therefore not notice that lots of people are watching me. One might ask why I can't duplicate this in normal conversation, and the answer seems to be that I rely on the prompts from my prepared notes or slides or whatever, and in more free-form circumstances some more conscious thought is necessary. I used to have difficulties with freezing up during the question period following a talk and I think this is the reason. (I've since improved in this regard.)

Tags: Academia, Life, Physics, Science
Comments

A theoretical paper in which they explain their states??? That's a rare breed. (Note: I do this except when forced not to by journals with strict page maxima, and this is one of the reasons a majority of my stuff is not submitted to such journals. In these situations, a common criticism I get from referees is that I show too many steps. Sigh... sometimes it feels like some of these people are saying one's work can't be good if the paper is too understandable. [I don't think I've ever had a paper killed for this, but I have had to accomodate multiple referees by removing steps.] It's one of the many unfortunate things going on in the world of journal publications.)

Off topic (but I'm impatient for Travis's open thread): What is up with nominating the new justice for Chief Justice? Shouldn't experience on the High Court be kind of a prerequisite for that...? I am too lazy to check if there's precedent for this, but it irks me. I know the guy has to have tons of experience just for the original nomination, but bypassing people who have sat on the Court for years seems rather strange to me.

Posted by: Mason | September 6, 2005 11:11 PM

Well, this came off the preprint server so they could still get rejected by PRB for excessive clarity... :)

As for the CJUS nomination, there was a post at Lawyers, Guns and Money about this. It turns out only three of the 16 prior Chief Justices were previously Associate Justices. On the other hand Roberts has very little judicial experience in general (he's been a judge for what, two years?) which should very much be an issue.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | September 7, 2005 12:06 AM

Wow, I would never have guessed that there's that much precedent for this (your additional point notwithstanding).

Posted by: Mason | September 7, 2005 12:32 AM
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