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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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Conferences, then and now

The ICHEP conference traditionally takes a day off on the Sunday midway through. With this being that day off, I thought I’d take a moment to review some conference traditions (or at least, what I think are the traditions).

The first such meeting was held in Rochester in 1950, as were the next six ICHEP’s, in fact. When I was in graduate school in the 90’s, there were still plenty of people who referred to it as the “Rochester meeting.” It started its walk around the world in 1958, and is now held every even-numbered year (alternating with the Lepton-Photon series). It’s an approved conference of IUPAP, the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, which serves as something of a international governing body for physics (if such a thing is even imaginable). As an international conference, it tends to rotate through different regions of the world; the last ICHEP was held in Paris, and the next, in 2014, will be in Valencia, Spain. (The 2013 Lepton-Photon will be in Palo Alto, CA).

The format of ICHEP is, as far as I know, always the same — there are parallel sessions on Thursday through Saturday, followed by an off-day Sunday, and then plenary sessions on Monday through Wednesday. The plenary talks are meant to be big summaries of the state of different topics in the field. When done well, they really provide a lot of structure and intellectual context to the most recent developments, and are a great platform for some of the best presenters in particle physics. One of the responsibilities of the plenary speakers is to summarize what was shown in the parallel sessions that were related to their topic. This can sometimes require a lot of last-minute work on the part of the rapporteurs (as they are called); presumably they don’t get to tour the city on Sunday.

One has to remember that it wasn’t as easy to know things back in the day as it is now! At the first big international conference like this that I attended, the Lepton-Photon in Ithaca in 1993, new results didn’t reverberate across the Web like they do now…since at the time we barely had a World Wide Web. (The only sites that did exist were at particle physics laboratories, though.) Instead, there was a room with physical printouts of conference papers, reporting results that were being announced at the conference. I definitely remember seeing one of the rapporteurs in the room, looking these papers over in preparation for giving her talk in the coming days. Now of course we are all more interconnected, and it’s also a bit easier to brief the speakers on what might be coming out.

It is worth noting that the structure of the ICHEP program probably had something to do with the decision to put the Higgs seminar on the eve of the conference. That it happened at CERN, we certainly understand — it makes sense that the lab wanted to make the announcement on its home turf. But with the parallel sessions up front, the various contributions to the final discovery would have come out in dribs and drabs over a day or two, with everyone then trying to pull together the picture for themselves in advance of the parallel sessions. It was much more dramatic to deliver the news in the way we did instead!

So, now we turn the corner and hit the back nine — the plenary sessions start tomorrow, and over the next three days we’ll get a comprehensive overview of the state of particle physics. Watch this space!

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