Preparations have begun!

By JoAnne Hewett | October 25, 2005 12:49 am

….for the 2006 SLAC Summer Institute (SSI). The SSI program directors have already met a few times in the past weeks and we are well on our way to gearing up for the 34th Summer Institute in 2006. We have decided on the dates, 10-21 July, 2006 (mark your calendars now! It’s gonna be fun!); the topic – LHC physics; and have blocked out the set of lecture topics. Good news – we are ahead of our usual planning schedule!

The Summer Institute is geared for the younger experimentalist – senior graduate students and junior post-docs – but theorists and more senior physicists sneak in as well. Students that attended the first Institutes are today’s laboratory directors and experimental leaders, and some of the early lecturers have since won Nobel prizes. One can only speculate on the future Nobel prize winners, but both Sean and Mark have now passed this hurdle on their quest.

Summer schools are an important experience and should be a part of every graduate student’s career. The benefits are numerous: 1) exposure to material the student would not ordinarily see, 2) exposure and chance to talk with current leaders in the field, and 3) the opportunity to meet one’s peers.

Planning for the SSI is undertaken by four illustrious program directors: two experimenters, one astro-particle physicist, and one theorist (me).

We begin work in September and essentially meet once a week for the rest of the year. SLAC has been doing this for 34 years now and it doesn’t get any easier. This is my 4th year, and I’m just now getting the hang of it. Each program director contributes something unique to the Institute. Here are my top accomplishments: (i) overhaul the mailing list for the announcements/posters. Turns out, before I joined, SSI had been using the original mailing list, drawn up in 1971. Yes folks, we were sending our announcements to dead people! And guess what, they weren’t sending their students…we now insist that only living physicists inhabit our mailing list. (ii) The t-shirts now have the emblem printed on the front instead of the back. This is quite important for physicists with long hair. (iii) I’m in charge of the wine for the dinners. I no longer have to bring bottles from home. (iv) We have a question box for the discussion sessions, where particularly shy students can submit written questions to the lecturers, rather than have to ask them out loud in front of 300 people.

The tasks of the program committee are varied, and not for the faint of heart:

Set the dates. We look at the schedule of the major summer conferences and avoid conflicts. It is important to grab our dates as early as we can so that other conferences, workshops, and schools must then schedule around us. We agree on this in about 30 minutes.

Set the theme or topic. This is surprisingly difficult. We have to guess what students will find interesting in 12 months time, and not duplicate anything we have done in recent years. It takes about a month to agree on this.

Map out the lectures. We have 3 lectures every morning for 2 weeks, for a grand total of 30. What are all the particular subjects to cover that are relevant to our theme? We each make lists and winnow them down. Once we have a managable list, we block it out on the blackboard to see how it all fits. This block stays on John’s blackboard all year long. This takes about a month.

Choose lecturers. Once the lecture topics are set we need to choose exactly the right person to give the lecture. We agonize over this. Over and over and over. Every choice is scrutinized and compared to a list of other people. We need not only an expert in the field, but someone who is a good speaker and can also be pedagogical and relate to students. This is surprisingly hard. This takes forever.

Send out speaker invitations and pray they accept. If not, we reiterate the above step.

We have to design the poster. We’re physicists, not artists, and we make some spectacular blunders. A captivating poster brings us a bigger crowd, so we take this seriously. It’s quite hard. We still joke about the previous design mistfits, such as the quantum foam that looked like Hersey’s candy kisses (sans foil wrap), and the linac that protruded from The Thinker’s butt. Those are the ones the public didn’t see!

We also arrange for a series of topical talks, i.e., talks that are relevant to current research. We try to match these to the Institute’s theme.

Then there’s the social program. We are in charge of the reception, dinners, social hours, lab tours, and soccer game. Also the Lick Observatory tours – these are a great hit, but something happens every year. The most noteworthy event occurred a few years ago when the bus, carrying the students down from the mountain, on the twisty-turny road, lost its brakes….apparently it was a rather harrowing experience. When I chaperoned a couple years ago, a student passed out on the bus on the way up the mountain…We had to cancel the Lick tours last year due to budget cuts – I hope we can bring them back!

There are a myriad of details, such as arranging for the lecture notes to be printed and posted, ensuring the projecter in the auditorium is in working order, the chairs are set up correctly for the discussion session, there are enough questions during the discussion session….and on and on and on…

And last, but not least, we are in charge of the budget. As you may guess, this is particularly important! Last year, we budgeted for every minute detail. We met our goal for participants, our expenses matched what we had calculated, and yet we were still in the red. I think some law of thermodynamics was violated here.

In the end, the planning is great fun, and is well worth it to see a large crowd of students enjoying themselves learning physics.

  • Clifford

    JoAnne: I have to ask. Was it one of those days when the Law of Averages broke down spectacularly or is there some new Northerm California fashion craze you have not told us about? Do you have to wear those interesting colour patterns for all your meetings?

    Inquiring minds need to know.


  • JoAnne

    Clifford, what? I thought Hawaiian gear and leis were a part of everyone’s everyday wardrobe.

  • Clifford

    Oops -my bad! I’m not up on these things. I basically wear plain solid colours in various pastel shades. I think that wearing a Hawaiian ensemble would make me a bit dizzy.

    Well, you all look very snazzy indeed!


  • Moshe

    Maybe a good place to briefly mention my pet project: we are likely to have another summer school next year at UBC. This will be the fourth of the “strings, gravity and cosmology” schools in Canada (previous one was at perimeter, the ones before at Vancouver) and the name describes it all…

    As we are much less organized there are not too many details, except of course that Vancouver in summer is heaven. Never was sure if this is an advantage or a disadvantage for summer school students trapped in a lecture hall, especially one overlooking the beach.

  • Plato

    Make the park your classroom:)

  • Moshe

    yeah, well, the beach on campus is actually a nude beach, will make for some interesting lectures.

  • Plato

    Make glass to reflect what’s going on inside and allows you to see out, and “holographical imaging” for objects in space, to lecture?:)

    Your future summer school, like a band in the park?

    Common, think! think! :)

  • Plato

    Wreck beach no no, Stanley Park:)

  • Moshe

    Plato very creative ideas, I see you know Vancouver inside-out…

  • Clifford

    So Moshe you’re saying the lecture hall overlooked the nude beach. How come I was not invited to lecture that year?! :-D


  • Moshe

    You did, but were not told the secret… to be honest, though the beach is extremely close to where you lectured, it is quite a steep climb down, and there is an impressive old forest there, so “overlooking” is a bit of a stretch, unless you have professional equipment… but I like the promotional angle emerging here: other schools (like SLAC’s) may have the brain trust, the budget and the tradition, but do they have a nude beach?

  • Clifford

    Oh. I thought you meant there was a view from the lecture theatre! That would have been a very amusing story to dine out on….


  • Moshe

    Sorry Clifford, will work on it… it is a bit like the ITP in SB (plus the forest).

  • Clifford

    Moshe…. in case you’re wondering… having a view of a nudist beach is not a requirement of my coming to lecture again, if you see fit to ask one day in the future!

    cheers, and good luck with organising it.


  • JoAnne

    Hmmmm….perhaps it’s the Hawaiian gear in the photo that got people thinking about beaches while reading a post on summer schools…

  • Amanda

    “a bit of a stretch, unless you have professional equipment…”


  • Clifford

    Amanda. That’s funny!

    (Desperately trying to drag this comment thread out of the gutter I helped take it into…..): Ah, I see, you mean like a professional dancer? Have a look at physics meets dance in this post I just uploaded.



  • Mark

    Back off Johnson – I’m next in line for Vancouver!

  • JoAnne

    Ok – I give up. The comments on my straight post about the SLAC Summer Institute is centering around nude beaches. So I might as well join in:

    I’ve been to that beach (avec clothes) and it’s not much. What I will never tell, is precisely which male physicist I came across….it wasn’t pretty.

  • Moshe

    Oh boy, sincere apologies JoAnne for hijacking the thread, it was meant to be a straightforward little comment, clearly something went terribly wrong there…


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