Way back in August I got an email from Dr Lily Asquith of the University of Sussex, asking if I could be available in February to give a seminar about LIGO and gravitational waves to the experimental particle physics group there.
I was flattered, but a little confused. I emailed back saying I’d be happy to but that I had no particle physics background and wouldn’t be sure how to talk about anything that would be relevant to their research. I also said that there were many great speakers in my research group at Glasgow, and are they sure they wanted me?
See? I’m an idiot. Here I am, presented with an opportunity to give an invited talk, a great thing for an early career researcher to have on their CV, and I come over all modesty and uncertainty. Fortunately, Dr Asquith was having none of it. She reassured me that the seminars were informal and relaxed, that they often had speakers from totally different fields and that I had been recommended to her.
I got my act together and said yes. I then decided to put off actually writing the seminar until I handed in my thesis. Then until I passed my viva. Then until I handed in my corrections. Then until I’d had a rest. Did I mention that I’m an idiot? Ah well. Eventually, I gave up a couple of weekends to put it together and practice it enough that I wouldn’t be too terrified to give it.
Here’s the thing about seminars and lectures: I have an attention span of around 10 minutes. Expecting anyone to listen to me for more than 10 minutes, therefore, feels like extreme hypocrisy. Fifteen minutes might be fine, but an hour? That’s awful. I’d been asked to speak for about 50 minutes so we had time for questions and I wanted to make sure I was being interesting for at least that long.
I was thought that I’d probably been recommended by someone I knew through science communication. Thing is, I’ve a tendency to occasionally win prizes for talking about science, especially when I’ve only got 10 or 15 minutes in which to do it. I put that down to terror that makes me practise until I can give the talk in my sleep no matter what goes wrong. If I have a 10-minute talk I can comfortably practise it 20 times in a weekend. I am unlikely to ever find the time to practise an hour long talk 20 times. Probably it doesn’t matter, but in my head that makes the quality suffer.
Anyway, eventually, I had a talk I was happy with and off I went.I spoke about the history of attempts to detect gravitational waves, about how interferometers are used to measure the small strains in spacetime that they produce. I talked about LIGO and the significance of the detection as well as other ways to detect waves produced by other sources. I talked about KAGRA and LISA and the need for a global network of detectors so we can do real gravitational wave astronomy. I rushed through what I thought was probably too many slides but ended up finishing in about 45 minutes, which no one seemed to mind.
I think it was well-received. People seemed engaged and I got lots of questions at the end, so at least it wasn’t boring. I’m still not a fan of longer talks (even if mine wasn’t quite for the full hour) but it’s good to have the first one under my belt. After a short session of questions and discussion, it was time for me to start heading back up to Scotland.
In the middle of storm Dorris.
Now, storm Dorris hadn’t exactly been a major storm. More of a nuisance than anything else. However, I had to get two trains to get to the airport, then a flight, then a bus, then another train before I could be back in Falkirk. I got back late, tired and cold but pleased with how the day had gone.
Next time I’ll just make sure my seminar is at a university that isn’t at the other end of the country.