Travel, Travel, and More Travel

By JoAnne Hewett | November 12, 2006 5:50 pm

As I write this, it’s a cold dreary rainy Saturday morning here in the BlueGrass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky — I’m waiting for my delayed flight. Testimony that life as a physicist is not always so glamorous. In fact, readers of CV could get the opposite impression – that we are globetrotting celebrities, darting here and there to deliver lectures, attend meetings, and work with colleagues. It is true that physicists tend to have a heavy travel load. Going home today, I will log my 90,000th flight mile for 2006 on United Airlines alone. Sometimes we visit exotic locales, but most of the time we travel so that we can spend our days discussing science in a windowless room in places like Batavia, Illinois. Sometimes, even when we travel to popular tourist destinations, we still spend our time in windowless rooms, prompting the phrase Travel Abroad, Stay Indoors. In particular, I remember a meeting in Paris, where all I saw was the inside of lecture halls, and even had working dinners in hotel restaurants with bad food. I might as well have been in Cleveland.

So, why do physicists travel so frequently? My family continuously asks that question and one aunt in particular is convinced that my life is one big vacation. The answer is simple: science is all about interaction. The image of an eccentric white-haired gentlemen working away, alone, in his ivory tower couldn’t be more false (on several counts). There are two main aspects to progress in science:

  • Research: Yes, a scientist does have to sit down and do the actual work, and yes, that can sometimes be rather tedious. However, before one sits down to do the work, you gotta have an idea. Preferably an interesting idea. That idea usually does not arrive in a single eureka moment while sitting in isolation. Well, actually maybe it does, but only after interaction with colleagues. After listening to lectures, reading papers, discussing points, and then churning ideas over (and over and over) in your head.
  • Dissemination: Even if you’ve done Nobel prize winning work, it doesn’t matter if no one knows about it. You’ve got to sell your work. Publication in a prestigious journal (or posting on the arXiv) is not enough. A significant fraction of the new material physicists learn is absorbed by listening to talks. I guess we never abandon the notion of learning at lectures.

So, what are the sorts of business trips that physicists take? My trips have included all of the following this past year:

  • Conferences: We attend conferences to (i) give talks describing our own results, performing the dissemination part of our job, (ii) listen to other talks, gathering new ideas and staying up to date, and (iii) interact with a wide variety of colleagues.
  • Workshops: These are usually working meetings, where we perform a calculation that is oriented towards a specific goal (i.e., study of XYZ at the LHC) and have intense discussions with fellow workshop participants.
  • Summer Schools: Here we present a lecture series to a group of students. I must admit that I like summer schools that are held in nice or unusual destinations where I can spend time walking and taking pictures after my lectures are finished.
  • Seminars/colloquia/public lectures: We give individual lectures for dissemination and attend them to learn and gather new ideas. It’s particularly important for young researchers to go on the seminar circuit so that they can become known.
  • Collaboration meetings: This is mainly for experimenters to stay abreast with the results within their detector collaboration. Can you imagine the LHC detector collaboration meetings, with roughly 2000 participants, discussing the intricate details of Higgs searches and possible discoveries! As a theorist who works closely with experimenters, I have been invited to give pep talks (a theoretical interlude if you like) at many collaboration meetings, and I always thoroughly enjoy doing so.
  • Visit a collaborator: This is clearly on the performing research side of the job, when collaborators meet face to face to develop ideas and further progress on a project.
  • Committee/panel meetings: This is taking an increasingly larger fraction of my time. Most commonly, we serve on peer review panels to review a set of grant proposals or potential experimental projects for their scientific merit. I have also served on panels which advise the DOE and NSF on broader funding issues and which have written literature to explain the merits of a project to various audiences.

So, my trip to Kentucky? To give a physics department colloquium on Discovering the Quantum Universe. I enjoy communicating the excitement of my field and the impending scientific revolution we expect at the LHC!

  • Risa

    Writing from a hotel room in lovely Reston, VA, I just realized that despite my best intentions of staying put this fall, I’ve managed to be away for precisely half of the last month, including a conference, a workshop, a visit to collaborators, and a review panel. Next month includes both collaboration meetings and a colloquium. Oy. My family definitely shares your family’s skepticism…

  • citrine

    How does electronic communication factor into all this?

  • Sean

    I went over 90,000 miles today, too! (Probably flying into the same airport.) But that’s including credit-card bonus miles etc. Still, a lot of travel time.

    citrine, there is a lot of electronic communication — but it doesn’t at all substitute for face-to-face communication. E.g., the dinner one is inevitably taken to after giving a colloquium is often when the most productive physics conversations take place.

  • JoAnne

    Sean, it’s the time of year ro reach 90,000 miles…. Mine are actual flight miles, and my calculations show I will end the year literally 1500 miles short of earning 100k status. So, I am actually thinking of fitting in a 3-day weekend trip to Tucson in December. Just the thought of flying some more so I can earn a fliying award makes me think I must be losing it.

    Citrine, Sean is absolutely correct. The idea for one of my favorite papers came during a discussion at a cocktail hour before a banquet dinner, and the idea for one of my more famous papers was formed at lunch during a conference.

  • John Baez

    As telepresence keeps getting better, and oil becomes more expensive, and global warming gets worse, there will be more and more reasons to talk to people face-to-face over the computer instead of jetting around the planet.

    One person flying in an airplane for one hour is responsible for the same greenhouse gas emissions as a typical Bangladeshi in a whole year. Every year jet aircraft generate almost as much carbon dioxide as the entire African continent produces. In the US such facts are hard to come by, thanks to the general ostrich-like attitude of the government. But in England, they’re arguing about a 50 pound “global warming tax” on airplane flights, and the newspapers enjoy listing how much carbon dioxide each government official emits by flying around.

    This webpage lets you estimate how many tons of carbon dioxide you create by taking a flight from point X to point Y. For example, it says one person’s share of a round trip flight from San Francisco airport to Bluegrass Airport in Kentucky creates 0.72 metric tons (720 kilograms) of carbon dioxide.

    I don’t know how accurate this is, but it’s a good idea. Since we don’t see the carbon dioxide, it’s easy not to think about it.

  • Yvette

    “In particular, I remember a meeting in Paris, where all I saw was the inside of lecture halls, and even had working dinners in hotel restaurants with bad food. I might as well have been in Cleveland.”

    As a student in Cleveland I resent that… we have good food, so long as you don’t go too near the dining halls of CWRU…

  • PhilipJ

    Yvette – the point remains, Cleveland is no Paris. :)

  • Michael D

    Of course we all fly carbon neutral these days don’t we?

  • Jack

    It’s funny that driving a 300 hp car is an eco-crime, but tens of thousands of miles of [largely superfluous] academic jet-setting is a matter of pride. After the manner of Brad Pitt, who drives a Prius — and flies a private plane to Namibia.

  • LucysGranddaughter

    For anybody that uses Travelocity to book flights, I just read an article about how they’re now selling tax-deductible carbon offset options with their tickets. They’ll send your donation (they recommend just $10 for a round-trip flight, one night in a hotel, and a car rental) to some environmental nonprofit…

  • Plato

    JoAnne:The image of an eccentric white-haired gentlemen working away, alone, in his ivory tower couldn’t be more false

    In a “virtual world” your statement couldn’t be more false. :) The connections are much more subtle then one might think. Of course we praise our human contact, but the world has changed, and so has it’s travel, progressed.

    To have a group of scientists sit in one room while another displays it thought processes immediately through that “virtual world,” allows for white hair ole men, to effectively create the the towers(not the egos of)but effective communication techniques.

    Progressive changes some how make “ole people” less inclined to change?

    If the bloggery world sees growth in the contact and views put forth to correct? Are we all so stubborn to not accept changes in the virtual/public eye? New information allows those changes? Change your name?:)

    Unless you are quite comfortable to recognize such changes?

    So while we may not see your meetings, such meetings are the talks of, and from it, what has transpired from that ripple effective in the virtual world?

    Elysium is still a debate then, about what will transpire in that virtual world? :) “Mount Olympus,” as such a tower, while we know better as lay people that such changes are inevitable.?

    “Glass houses/rooms, can be good for initiating ideas?

  • Count Iblis

    citrine, my experience is that younger people are better at electronic communication than the older people. E.g. I’ve written several papers with people who I’ve never met in real life; the older guys at my institute wouldn’t even think of doing that.

    It won’t be long before universities will vanish and be replaced by “cyberversities” :)
    Professors and students can log on from their homes all over the world; they don’t have to relocate. You save the cost of the university buildings etc.

  • graviton383

    The possibility that all face to face meetings of researchers and of students and teachers will vanish in the future is bogus. 20 years ago a friend of mine said that the advent of videotapes would kill off movie theaters in 5 years…he got that wrong. People forget that there is a necessary social component in being a human being.

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  • Logizmo

    Good call Graviton.
    I don’t think that anything will ever really replace face to face collaboration in science. After all, there is more to communication than words.

  • Siberia

    After all, there is more to communication than words.

    While physically shoveling the snow I thought……

    Exactly:) Some basis of sociological thinking. Some math perhaps? Some new theoretical position.

  • B

    why do scientists travel: 15 hours sitting on a plane trying to ignore your next neighbors, and your hurting legs, gives you plenty of time to think, maybe more than you’d like to have. I have had some of my best ideas staring at a sign saying ‘Your seat cushion can be used as a floating device’. Call it a modern version of meditation. One day, there will be a wireless available on flight, and then that refuge is subject to the blogosphere as well…

  • Count Iblis


    That’s only because the older generation hangs on to their old habits. Young people today hardly ever go to movie theaters.

    Face to face communication can also be implemented electronically using virtual reality techniques. That costs too much bandwith today to be practical but in a decade from now it will be business as usual.

    And a bit further in the future, humans themselves will become obsolete.

  • Hiranya

    For the ecologically conscious, over the past two years I’ve found my long-distance collaborations have been hugely productive without flying through the use of videoconferencing. Sadly it doesn’t cater to occasions where you have to be physically present to give talks (and of course you meet new collaborators at workshops and conferences) — and I log a lot of transatlantic miles through personal reasons that have nothing to do with physics.

    So thanks a lot to #5 and #10 for posting about the carbon offsets on flights. I have been feeling enormous guilt over the amount of flying I do, and I will forward these links to friends and colleagues with similar concerns also.

  • Moshe

    For low cost and efficient video-conferencing, specifically targeted at high energy physicists, look at I found their services to be very useful. Large experimental collaborations could hardly function without such mechanisms.

  • Yvette

    Yvette – the point remains, Cleveland is no Paris. :)

    Yes, but the point also remains: Cleveland is not the inside of a boring hotel conference room either! 😉

  • Eugene

    I think we should all date our next door neighbors and end our long distance relationships with extreme prejudice now!

  • graviton383

    Count Iblis:

    I guess those 500 teenagers I saw at the movies (in line for Borat) last week don’t count…Having gone to dozens of movies over the past year I’d say that young people are the DOMINANT antendees at movie theatres (unless they just hang around in the lobby after buying a ticket) & seem to have a wonderful time socializing there….

  • Quasar9

    Gosh JoAnne,
    I’ve got a full time job just planting the trees to compensate for the air miles and fossil fuels you, Risa & sean are burning.
    Got no time for Physics – oh! but wait planting seeds and seeing tress grow that is pretty physic-al, though perhaps not much more fun than watching pain dry.

    John Baez, Plato – I agree the conference can be held face to face on-line, and save on the airmiles, they can be just as productive online as in a windowless room (guess JoAnne uses Mac not Misrosoft, lol!

    But I agree with JoAnne & Sean, you can’t have the cocktails and after dinner interaction online.

    JoAnne meeting in Paris, and not enjoying good food, the magic in the air or the Parisienne night & sights? – You’ve been meeting with the wrong person.

  • Count Iblis


    My experience is that far less people go to the movies now than in the 1980s.

  • John Baez

    It’s true you can’t have cocktails and after-dinner interaction online – yet. But, it’s easy to imagine how! World-wide chains of virtual reality restaurants and cafes, with special rooms for conferences, are already doable with present-day technology. There’s just not the demand yet – but mainly because nobody is providing this service at an affordable price! And why not? Well, mainly because there’s not the demand. It’s one of those chicken-and-egg things that seems intractable until one day we reach the tipping point and suddenly things change.

    The price of transporting bits will continue to drop, and the price of transporting kilograms will continue to rise. So, we can expect the trend towards telepresence to continue. And as it does, things that seem futuristic suddenly become commonplace. When phone calls became free, people started dating people in other countries via video. So, the idea that conferences require physical presence is starting to seem old-fashioned, and someday we’ll wonder why we ever thought that.


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