For the next hour and a half or so you will stand up front, a set of prepared powerpoint slides behind you. We will play a game. You will try to talk and we will try to prevent you from talking by asking questions, not waiting for the answer before we say what we think. We won’t know anything about your field and will make mistakes resolved 50 years ago, because we do not need to study biology. Perhaps the most powerful among us will say the most. In fact, really you are just standing in front for our entertainment while we lecture from the rear of the room in question form. If you don’t catch on that this is a contest, then you are a fool.
I asked a friend here at UCSB if he ever went to the KITP talks since they seemed to have so many interesting people come through. No, he said, he did not. The trouble was, he explained, that he was actually often interested in what the person up front might have to say and they were not allowed to actually say it at KITP. So he stopped coming to these exercises that danced between frustration and humiliation. What exactly is going on?
Seminars, talks, meetings, coffee hours, and other social events are a major part of how we learn new ideas, then incorporate them into our own thinking. There can be something transcendent about bouncing ideas higher and higher in a vibrant discussion. I suppose that is why we are spending three weeks here in Santa Barbara at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. We have coffee hours daily. There are two or even more talks every day. We share offices. There are many common areas for informal discussions. Some of us even live in shared housing where conversations can extend to dinner and beyond. Next week there will be a regular meeting with 37 different speakers.
The problem is the convention for interrupting has become extreme. I know that this varies among disciplines, that philosophers often carefully wait until the speaker is done then spend a lot of time with questions, for example. Biologists are typically intermediate, interrupting for clarifications more than for big discussions. KITP is even proud of what they do. You can look at the recordings and see that my initial characterization of the seminars is a bit of a caricature. Here is the link for general talks and for the session I am in. Is it a good idea? Does it make me feel like sharing anything with these people? No. If this is a general pattern for physics and math, it might even contribute to why they have fewer women. Of course causation could go the other way.
I only feel glad that I come from an institution of a very different kind.