Professors at research universities engage in many different activities, and one which is little known to the public involves teaching at short and focused “schools” for graduate students. These schools, which generally last one to four weeks, and are usually (but not always) held outside the main academic year in winter or summer, allow these students to learn advanced topics in short courses that their universities wouldn’t be able to offer.
For instance, at most universities in the United States, a course focused on the theory of quarks and gluons (the set of equations known as “QCD”) would be attended by just a few students. And many universities don’t even have a professor who is truly expert on this subject. But when interested students from many universities are brought together at one of these specially organized schools, a world’s expert on QCD can teach a group of students as large as fifty or more. Not only is there economy of scale in this arrangement, it also helps to foster a future community among the students who attend. I myself went to one such school when I was a graduate student, and the faculty and students I met there include a number who are my professional peers today.
Usually, professors are not paid to teach at these schools, even though preparing a course is often a huge amount of work. There are two inducements, other than the satisfaction derived from the teaching itself. The first is that travel and lodging are free for the teacher; they are paid for by the organizers of the school, who in turn get the required funds from their university and/or government organizations. The latter (wisely, in my opinion) see such schools as having national value, in that they help assure a strong national research community in the future. The second is that the schools are often held in places where a person would not regret spending a week. The schools at which I have taught over the years have occurred in Boulder, Colorado (USA); Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada); Fermilab National Lab in Aurora, Illinois (USA); Cambridge, England; Kyoto, Japan; and Varna, Bulgaria. I’ve also taught in Italy, previously in the towns of Trieste and Erice, and this month in Florence (i.e. Firenze). For the next ten days or so, I’ll be at the Galileo Galilei Institute for Theoretical Physics (GGI), which is named, of course, after Florence’s most famous scientist.
(Several of my previous short courses are available in written or video form, and most are still sufficiently up-to-date to be useful to future experts. All of them assume, at least in large part, that a student has had a beginning course in quantum field theory. I can provide some links later this week if there is interest, though most of them easily show up in a web search.)
This is my first visit to the GGI, which is associated with the University of Florence, and is located on a hill a couple of miles from downtown Florence, not very far from where Galileo himself lived for some years. It was founded around 2006 to host focused research workshops, as well as brief schools. The theoretical particle physics graduate students at this school have already learned about dark matter from Tomer Volansky (a collaborator of mine on a trigger-related project), and about supersymmetry from David Shih (a former colleague at Rutgers and a recent collaborator on a supersymmetry/LHC project.) They’ll also be learning about the Higgs phenomenon and its generalizations from Raman Sundrum (who’s been mentioned many times on this blog, and whom I visited last month); about the physics of “flavor” — including the issue of how the six different types quarks transition from one to another via the weak nuclear force — from Gino Isidori; and about the physics of quarks and gluons from one of the world’s great experts, Stefano Catani. (You may not recognize these names, as none of them have written books for the public or developed a popular website or blog; but any expert in the theoretical particle physics knows them very well.) And last and perhaps least, they’ll be learning various bits of particle physics that one ought to know in the context of particle colliders, and particularly of the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], from me.
One corollary of this news is that I’ll be pretty busy for the next ten days, so I’m not sure how active the blog will really be. But I can promise you at least one post on string theory!