On being the dumbest guy at a relativity conference

I recently spent a week as the dumbest guy in the room at the 2017 Atlantic General Relativity conference  in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The last relativity meeting I attended was in 1996 when I was a graduate student finishing my PhD in general relativity at Queen’s University. Since then I have collected and browsed GR books – but only in the last six months have I made a more serious effort to re-learn the subject. Upon seeing an announcement for the conference I decided I would take a week off from software development and go see what the GR crowd was up to.

I did have an “in”. As a graduate student I co-developed GRTensorII, a software package for Maple that GR researchers found useful. Recently, I updated this package so that I could use it as I re-learned the subject and because I had heard others were struggling with the stale software on more modern versions of the Maple computer algebra platform that it runs on. Hopefully, this would give me some credibility and something to talk about at the conference.

I created an abstract, sent it off and booked a ticket to St John’s.

Then I started to worry. Twenty years away from general relativity is a long time. As always my coping strategy was to buy books, since clearly owning books is equivalent to knowing what is in them. Added to my GR collection were Spacetime and Geometry, Gravity , An Introduction to General Relativity and Cosmology, A Student Manual for A First Course In General Relativity and Introduction to General Relativity, Black Holes and Cosmology. There was no way I was going to get through all of these. (I did make good progress in Carroll and Hartle and it is my ambition to work through the rest of these texts and make some worksheets for GRTensor.)

Then I found myself in a lecture room with equations galore. The first day had introductory lectures by post-docs to provide background knowledge for the graduate students attending the conference. These were a great refresher for me. I was able to follow the ideas in each of them – so it seemed things might be okay. At one point a post-doc pointed out that GRTensorIII had been updated. At the coffee break several of the post-docs figured out who I was and thanked me for updating the software.

The personal high point was during the invited lectures when Eric Poisson was giving his talk on new characteristics of tidally distorted neutron stars. He remarked “At this point I have to thank Peter and GRTensorIII for making this calculation something I could do in afternoon – since otherwise it might not have been completed”. That one sentence made the whole trip worthwhile. I continued to get positive feedback over the five days of the conference and my talk about GRTensorIII was well received.

It was interesting to see where the research frontier is and to get some perspective on some of the recent controversies such as firewalls and inflation (short answer, neither had much support). I asked Eric what had been “big” in the last 20 years. He pointed to the proofs of black hole stability. This conference included three lectures on the foundations of this work presented by Stefanos Aretakis. He outlined the 500 page proof of the global non-linear stability of Minkowski space. His enthusiasm and deep grasp of the material were captivating as he conveyed the essential ideas behind the proof. He made the stability of non-linear PDEs almost interesting!

Gravitational radiation was also a big topic. LIGO has made this very topical and the classical GR researchers are building analytic methods to supplement the numerical results. Talks on energy at infinity, measures of mass and horizon deformation were the ones I was most able to follow – since they rely on the kind of classical calculations I was familiar with.

There was also a lot of quantum gravity content here – which I simply did not follow. I don’t even remember how to quantize a hydrogen atom, never mind a spacetime. This did peak my interest (I forsee a book purchase in my future) but I also got a sense of people exploring the space of ideas because they can and it is publishable. However, this is “part of the game” and a great deal of doing research is going down blind alleys, until someone finds a way through.

I did hear some interesting talks about the process of physics, typically over pints at the end of the day. Many PhDs do multiple, very poorly paid post-docs and then often find a non-academic job at the end. I asked about whether limiting the supply of post-docs would make sense. The sentiment was that research was getting done, at bargain prices. There are clearly people who love doing the work and, like e.g. independent musicians, are willing to trade off income for the opportunity to do something they love.

As for me, I chose the other path. I elected for the more stable and better compensated path as software developer. Over the past 20 years it has generally been satisfying work. Clearly part of me misses physics – otherwise I would not have gone somewhere where I was the dumbest person in the room.

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