Sunday, 30 January 2011


While I was a graduate student at Oxford, the astronomy department ran something they called 'the secret seminars'. These were talks given by students for students as practice at presenting their research to an audience without feeling intimated by the far more knowledgable faculty.

I hated these.

The problem was that preparing a talk is time consuming, giving it is stressful and to do both the above without a seriously good reason when there is beer to be drunk down the local pub is hardly to be desired.

However, looking back, I think learning to enjoy giving talks is one of the most useful skills I have developed as a researcher.

Scientific papers are the currency of academia. Largely, the more papers you publish, the more successful you are considered to be and therefore the chances of procuring that next job or research grant are that much higher. While there is no substitute for this means of assessment, many of the people whose work I know best I became familiar with because I had heard them give a great talk at a conference or as a visiting speaker.

For me, once I realized that my audience were interested, not critical, and no one minded if I made the odd mistake, I relaxed and started to enjoy my presentations. As a speaker, you get to hog everyone's entire attention for the duration of your talk and if you're lucky, someone will be so excited that they'll invite you to their tropically-located institute to give a seminar when your own home is waist deep in snow. What's not to like?

I also feel that giving talks has done more to publicize my work than even my published papers.

With this in mind, I took the opportunity while visiting Santiago in Chile to give two talks; one at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and a second at one of universities in the city; the Pontificia Universidad Catolica (PUC). While I was keen to visit both institutes, these talks did present two slightly unusual problems:

The first was that my entire audience was likely to be observers. That was, astronomers who actually looked through telescopes at real stars and did not just build them in a computer.

In my theorist's opinion, that is one weird idea.

Chile is home to many of the world's telescopes for studying the southern sky. ESO itself operates three observatories in the country to give European astronomers access to the second hemisphere. Chile's high mountains and the mercilessly dry conditions of the Atacama desert make it an excellent location for getting the most out of the instruments. This makes the Chilean capital of Santiago an observers' domain with few researchers familiar with --or possibly even interested in-- my own field.

However, I was confident. I had made a couple of movies from my latest simulation results and who doesn't like movies? Nobody. Plus, movies are almost impossible to do with observational data because you'd have to observe for millions of years to cover a reasonable period of time on astronomical scales. Despite what it may feel like, this is longer than your average PhD.

So there was no doubt about it; all those observers would be jealous.

The second problem was that my audience would primarily have English as their second language. English is the language of choice for astronomy (a fact for which I am eternally grateful) with all major journals across the globe published in that language. This meant that despite being in Spanish-speaking Chile, my talk was expected to be in English. While this was probably fortunate (I only knew three words in Spanish, one of which 'bano' --meaning bathroom-- I had only learnt that morning), it was harder for the younger students who were not yet used to receiving English at speed.

This I found a more difficult problem to tackle. If I spoke very slowly, then the talk would seem stilted to the more fluent English speakers. I'd also be able to cover much less material. On the other hand, if I spoke at normal speed, it might be too quick for the students to all follow.

In the end, I spoke normally but tried to ensure the key points were clearly visible on the slides for people to read. Plus, I had movies. Who doesn't like movies?

There is always a tense moment after talks where you wonder if anyone is going to ask a question or if you lost your whole audience after slide number two. In some ways, having no questions is great since they can be annoyingly insightful at picking up holes in your work. On the other hand, it might also imply your research was too uninteresting for comment, which doesn't bode well for people wanting to read your paper or remembering to invite you out for a drink after the next conference. To my pleasure and possible surprise, both ESO and PUC were very tolerant of the theorist who had arrived in their midst and sparked an interesting discussion after I had finished speaking. Not only was this beneficial to my work, it was also a relief to know what I had presented was interesting to this broad audience.

As to the second problem, one of the students had the solution himself:

"Could I have a copy of your presentation as a PDF document? .... Though I suppose that won't allow me to see the movies."

Everyone likes movies.


  1. I had my undergrad in physics, yet as a grad in computational engineering/science, I pretty much enjoy talks in physics. Having a regular talk series is perhaps a good force for us (phd students) to practice oral skills; otherwise, no one bothers him/herself to do so :) BTW, reading this blog takes me back to physics years which I sort of missed...

  2. It really is a skill worth acquiring -- I don't think people explained this to me very well when I was at grad school (or if they did, I completely ignored them!). When I was an undergraduate, I dreaded talks. The 'oral' component was the worst mark I received when we had to put together a mini-research topic. But, once I relaxed, it became much more fun.

  3. PS -- I'm glad this blog reminds you of your physics days, so long as it doesn't bring back terrible memories of pulleys...