I volunteered to bring a question to our gravity lunch next Friday. Now I am wondering what to ask the brainy guys. How about: why are there hundreds of postdocs discussing the existence, properties and numerical investigation of black holes, black branes, black strings, black rings, or short: black things? (Though I have been told the technical term is black THINGIES.) Black thingies may be boosted, rotating, magnetic, deformed, bumpy or bumpier, potentially unstable, but mostly extreme, and certainly in extra dimensions.
Other questions that currently puzzle me is what a particle is, or why women plug out their eyebrows and then paint them back on. But I figure none of these interesting questions is really appropriate.
Besides this I am preparing a seminar I have to give next week here at UCSB. Since the unwritten law is that questions I can answer won't be asked, I currently wonder what a quantum algebra is (don't ask) -- not that it has anything to do with the seminar.
However, thinking about questions, I wasted time classifying the type of questions I have encountered in multiple seminars and parallel sessions:
1. The commenting question
Starts most often with the words: "It is more a comment than a question..." and serves to prove that the person asking knows something about something, most likely his/her own work. This is the most comfortable question to encounter, and can actually be very interesting, even if it has nothing to do with your talk.
2. The completely irrelevant question
Is the most common question, and one that you might want to practice when you like to draw attention to yourself. To give an example, I have been asked once how many pions a black hole emits (couldn't care less). Here are some very universally applicable members of this family
- What about the Cosmological Constant?
(Yeah, what about it?)
- Can you couple a massive scalar field to your model?
(Sure, but why would I?)
- Does that work in an arbitrary number of extra dimensions?
(Some particular number? 10 or 11 by any chance?)
- Can you say something about chiral symmetry?
(Plenty, but that's got nothing to do with my talk)
- Is there any relation to the recent work by XYZ?
(No idea, never heard of them.)
Starts most often as an interruption -- say on slide 2 -- and has the answer: I will come to that later -- say on slide 34. Not satisfied with this answer, the person asking will insist on further and further details, thereby completely destroying the structure of your talk which you have been thinking about for the last weeks. If the chair person fails to pull the pump-gun, my advise is to simply ignore the questions.
Another kind of never-ending question is asked in the end of your talk, and requires you to remember every detail of every calculation, parameters of the numerical investigation, factors 4 Pi, references to people whose names you can't pronounce, starting dates of experiments you can't remember, rotation directions in complex planes, and will make you ask yourself why the fu*k you did this work at all. Maybe we can discuss that in the coffee break.
4. The stupid question
Requires very much politeness, since we don't want to embarrass anybody, do we? Stupid questions are frequently asked by those who missed the beginning of your talk. Like: what is d, when you have been talking about the number of extra dimensions for 1 hour.
5. The dangerous question
Is most often asked by senior scientists and frequently comes with an attempt to appear harmless, like "It is probably a stupid question, but..." or "I must have missed something, but..." In case you encounter such a question, consider faking a heart attack on stage.
6. The honest question
And then there are the occasional honest questions from people who genuinely try to understand your work. Honest questions have made me realize many times what direction to look for further insights, and have brought up viewpoints I might have completely missed on my own.
See also: my new poem Honest Questions.