String Theory in Complete Sentences

On Twitter, I saw Graham Farmelo link to this Physics World blog post about Ed Witten’s Newton lecture, describing it as “Edward Witten’s clearest-ever overview of string theory for laypeople (i.e. most others).” Witten’s a name to conjure with, so I thought “That might be worth a look.”

So I went to the blog post, which has video embeds for the two halves of the talk (~30 min each), each with a single frame frozen as an example. Both representative frames show slides that are nothing but words– one full paragraph each, starting in the very upper left of the screen, and ending at the bottom right. They’re formatted in a way that suggests they might actually be one continuous stream of text scrolling up the screen like the opening credits in Star Wars, only the text color is slightly different.

And, really, it’s hard to think of a worse advertisement for a presentation than that. It’s conceivable that a talk with slides like that might be brilliant, but my experience suggests that’s not the way to bet. If I was arriving late to a colloquium, and saw a slide that looked like those, I would walk right on by.

Which is what I’m going to do, in a virtual sense, right now.

Comments

  1. #1 Aaron Bergman
    July 28, 2010

    This might be yet another example where Witten is sui generis (not to fall into too much Witten worship). He always writes his talks like that, and he’s a very good speaker. On the other hand, the ones I’ve seen have all been technical talks, so I won’t vouch for the technique for a popular talk.

  2. #2 Bee
    July 28, 2010

    The worst talks are those where a speaker just uses a pdf of his paper and essentially reads it aloud (with his back to the audience, getting exhausted in places, mumbling “you know that anyway” and skipping some pages here and there). I wonder why people even bother to give these talks.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    July 28, 2010

    Bee: While I’ve never seen anybody do that in a talk, I’ve seen too many posters like that. It’s one of the tricks that gets people to skip your poster and move on to the next one.

    As a grad student I did see one thesis proposal talk where the student’s slides were probably taken directly from the written document. Having page breaks in mid-sentence is a major clue. I’m guessing he didn’t try to practice in front of his advisor or one of the more senior grad students in his group, as their response would have been along the lines of, “No, you dolt!”

    There is a longstanding tradition of bad talks that take figures directly from published papers without any attempt at annotation. I’ve also seen people do nothing more than read their PowerPoint slides (including people who AFAIK are native English speakers–I can sort of understand somebody whose English is inadequate doing that sort of thing). I’ve never seen Witten in action, so perhaps that style works for him–but if it does, he’s the rare exception.

  4. #4 MRW
    July 28, 2010

    ug… I watched the first couple minutes. The words on the slide are nearly verbatim what he says. Not only that, but he keeps turning to glance at the words as he puts up a new line of text… which makes the volume drop as he turns away from the microphone.

    In the part I watched, he spoke clearly and with relatively little jargon (if a bit flatly), but the talk would have been better without any slides at all than it was with the pointless and distracting transcript of what he was saying.

  5. #5 CCPhysicist
    July 28, 2010

    I’ll bet he is actually a truly dynamic lecturer in a freshman physics class ….

    Recommendation for improving your teaching evaluations: have Witten give a guest lecture to your class a week or two before they are due.

  6. #6 Jacques Distler
    July 28, 2010

    Let me get this straight.

    Edward Witten wins the Newton Medal, and gives a public lecture on String Theory (a blogospheric bête noire, and Chad’s favourite punch-line), and we’re talking about the quality of his slides?!

    Wow!

  7. #7 DK Fennell
    July 28, 2010

    Jacques,

    I was shocked as well.

    But even worse, Orzel announces (it’s the whole point of the post) that he’s not going to bother listening to it.

    I guess we are securely in the Age of Entertainment.

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    July 28, 2010

    Edward Witten wins the Newton Medal, and gives a public lecture on String Theory (a blogospheric bête noire, and Chad’s favourite punch-line), and we’re talking about the quality of his slides?!

    I’m reformed, these days. If you want rantings about string theory, you’re at the wrong blog– try this one.

    I might give the lecture a shot at some point when I have nothing better to do. If nothing else, the reading-complete-paragraphs-off-slides thing should make it possible to get through in about half the time, by watching it on fast-forward.

  9. #9 Shadow Of A Doubt
    July 28, 2010

    As a undergraduate in physics I don’t know what you’re complaining about – I have experienced many worse lecturers and lecture formats than this. I was well out of my depth as I only caught the gist of his points, however I’m putting that down to the nature of the material and the audience it was being pitched at not the quality of the slides!

  10. #10 Jacques Distler
    July 28, 2010

    If you want rantings about string theory, you’re at the wrong blog…

    Indeed. An opportunity missed, over there:

    String theory is doomed (doomed, I tell you!) … because … Edward Witten doesn’t know how to use PowerPoint.

  11. #11 Dominic Lipinski
    August 1, 2010

    Presentations with use of PowerPoint are usually much worse, than they’d be without.

  12. #12 Sili
    August 1, 2010

    Who did the presentation? He sounded remarkably nervous.

    French? Or just a relation of Johnathan Woss?

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!