The Division of Computational Physics of the American Physical Society has now its own blog, brought to you by its very own executive committee, of which I am presently a “member-at-large” (soon to be apprehended and brought into custody, I guess). The latest post advertises the upcoming conference on computational physics (CCP 2011), to be held in Gatlinburg (TN), October 30th – November 3rd, 2011.
Now, what exactly is this conference all about ?
I attended CCP 2010 in Trondheim, Norway, where I was invited to give a talk, which was scheduled in a session including two other talks, on subjects essentially unrelated to that of my own — I mean, I suppose all of them would fall within “condensed matter physics” (broadly construed), but the science was very different, the only true common feature being that we all use computers to do our calculations. Not surprisingly, very few of those in the audience who came for my talk, stayed after I was finished; on the other hand, a bunch of other people came in the room to listen to the next one. My impression, from looking at all other sessions, is that mine was not at all an “odd” one.
I have to confess, I do not think that I would be using my own travel money to attend a conference like that, nor would I recommend an advisee to go. I simply do not find compelling enough a reason for sitting through a bunch of talks on random subjects (which, mind you, may be very interesting to others, but not to me), that the results presented were obtained numerically. I suppose I might be interested in a talk on a different subject from that on which I do research, if the methodology utilized in that work could conceivably be useful to me as well — but in my experience that happens exceedingly rarely. As I wrote in this old post, methods that are really effective are generally developed to tackle a specific, narrowly defined problem.
While I do believe that there are valid reasons for having a Division like DCOMP, I still think that at the end of the day we are, and remain, physicists, and that there is nothing intrinsically different about us, just because we happen to be using computers more than our colleagues. I am annoyed by any talk of “third approach”. What we are after, are physical results and conclusions — the fact that they are numerical is only valuable to the extent that they are accurate, reliable and reproducible.
I have stated many times that there is nothing wrong in being interested in methods, and that the development of a novel, innovative methodology constitutes an important scientific contribution, especially if it allows one to gain original theoretical insight into problems that cannot be effectively tackled with existing techniques. Ultimately, however, the main scientific goal of attending a conference (as opposed to a small workshop, which may well be all on methods alone) is to learn about new science; the focus must remain on the results that are obtained, not on the techniques utilized to obtain them (of course, as long as the techniques are believable, robust, extensively tested etc.).
Ensuring some scientific coherence in the various sessions, at a conference like CCP (or maybe through the whole division) may always prove a difficult balancing act. I am afraid, however, that as long as invitations are extended to (and contributed talks solicited of) speakers disseminated throughout the whole discipline, who have accomplished something important using some kind of numerical techniques, the conference may never lose the potpourri character, which in my opinion is not conducive either to learning, nor to increased acceptance of computation as a legitimate investigative tool among skeptics — in fact it may help perpetuate that annoying misconception of numerical people as “technicians”.
I propose a different model, one in which the organizing committee would solicit from groups of scientists proposals for sessions focusing on a specific scientific theme; session speakers would be investigators who are computationally inclined, but whose research work fall squarely within a precisely identifiable sub-field, and who would be talking about the same, well-defined subject.
That would have first of all the effect of making it more likely that the audience find all talks interesting and worth listening to — because they are all interested in that subject. It would also provide some incentive for people to submit contributed abstracts, if they are going to be speaking in some coherent, homogeneous session.
Perhaps most importantly, it would also make it more compelling for others to attend, including some who may not be themselves of the numerical persuasion, but who may be interested in that research subject; ideally, exposing them to concrete, tangible advances made by computation may finally warm them up to it, maybe even to embrace it.