The Challenges of Writing a “Colloquium”

Time for a little insight into what it means to be a professor…

One of the most interesting and challenging tasks that academics, especially academic scientists, are invited to do as part of their careers is to talk about their work, and more generally their field, to an audience consisting of an entire academic department.   This kind of talk is called a “colloquium”, and most departments hold a colloquium weekly.  In a few days I’ll have the honor of giving one.

Several years ago I wrote a colloquium on the Large Hadron Collider, which I presented numerous times between 2007 and 2010.  But now, with the huge amount of LHC data that has flooded in this year, I have to write a substantially new one.

It is one thing to give a talk to a small group of experts within a department, where as a speaker one need not provide too much background material, since those attending the talk are already generally familiar with the issues. The same is true for a larger audience at specialized conferences, such as the ones I attended and described this summer.  In such cases, one can focus on technicalities for more than half the talk.  But when talking to an entire physics department?  Even an audience full of physicists can be remarkably diverse. Typically there will be junior and senior undergraduates who are just starting to learn some advanced concepts in physics.  And at the other end of the spectrum, there will be famous established scientists from very different subfields from mine, such as experimental quantum optics, observational astronomy, theoretical biophysics, etc., who may barely know the basics of my topic.  I will have less than an hour to bring this wide audience up to speed on the subject of particle physics, explain the important puzzles that the Large Hadron Collider is designed to explore, describe how the LHC works and how physics is done there,  characterize the most important results from the 2011 data, and examine their implications.  All this while being clear and occasionally entertaining.

Building this website sometimes feels daunting, but the many topics of importance in particle physics can be covered over many webpages, and a reader can study and review the pages at leisure.  With a colloquium, the conditions are much less forgiving; the talk has to be perfectly designed, be carefully rehearsed, and proceed like clockwork.  It’s performance art, and it requires acting skill, people instincts, empathy, and a sense of timing — along with, of course, good science.

11 responses to “The Challenges of Writing a “Colloquium”

  1. What ever you do, please don’t start with a detailed summary of “what this talk will cover”.

    I can’t think of anything more pointless and off-putting. Indeed, for the audience it’s an invitation to get up and leave if the programme doesn’t suit them!

    A great film, play or book doesn’t begin with a plot synopsis, and a great talk shouldn’t either.

      • In a sense I do: I find it usually pays to give people quickly at least an idea of what you are going to do, or something they can hold on to during the rest of the talk.

        Excessive details / common platitudes are not necessary though.

      • I always decide based on audience. If I want money, I won’t tell a suspense story, I’ll respect the giver by respecting their time and patience. If I’m entertaining or educating someone, suspense can be captivating, if done well, and captivation is the holy grail for educators and entertainers. (I’m not sure that I do it well, though.)

      • once upon a time in space,,without a plot time fills the blanks…i cant think of any topic/subject that i wouldn’t want to learn more about…so there is no fear of me leaving,,,there is nothing wrong with listing content,,but breif is always good,wet their appetites,but allow the audience to navigate their own way throuh.however there are many variables to consider,,afterall the speaker in this case is informing/educating not just entertaining,,,

  2. I`m jaleous of the people who will sit in the kolloquim; I`d like to see the talk to ;-)

  3. a_bad_physics_student

    Any suggestion on how to keep talking speed down when having a physics colloquium, i think thats the hardest thing to do of all?

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