# Pricey Strings

In recent years most of the conferences I’ve attended have been mathematics and mathematical physics ones, and I had noticed that, while modest registration fees were often a feature many years ago, these days most such conferences, especially in the US, have no registration fee at all. It seems that mathematicians tend to organize conferences at rather modest cost, and mathematics research is very well supported by the NSF, universities and private foundations. This morning I’d been idly considering the idea of taking a day-trip down to Philadelphia next month to visit friends and maybe attend a couple talks at String-Math 2011, which has a promising list of speakers, but not yet a schedule of talks. I noticed though that registration is $200, which is a bit high as a price to attend a couple talks, whatever source I might find to pay for it. As one moves from mathematics topics to physics ones, it seems that things get a lot pricier. You might think that string theory not working out as hoped would lead to the availability and market-value of string theory talks heading downwards, but the opposite seems to be true. The big string theory conference this summer is Strings 2011 in Uppsala, where registration will cost you 5625 Swedish Krona (about \$900) [Organizer Joe Minahan points out that this is the on-site cost for faculty, for whom the pre-May 19 price is 4375 Swedish Krona = \$700, post-May 19 5000 Swedish Krona = \$800. Costs for students are lower]. For that you get the talks, coffee, lunch and a reception. If you want to go to the conference dinner, that’s \$112 extra. The conference series is advertised as “gathering more than 500 researchers in string theory”, although in recent years, attendance at Strings 20XX conferences has been a bit lower. Last year’s was anomalous, held in March (when academics often can’t travel) in College Station, Texas (not exactly a major tourist destination), it attracted only 193 participants, despite a relatively low registration fee of only$350. For Strings 2011, they’ve got 208 people registered already. The list of speakers is here. There’s an associated program of Public Lectures which seem likely to have little to do with string theory, instead concentrating on “mind-boggling questions” about the multiverse and the Big Bang. Those at least seem to be free.

I haven’t added up the total cost, but if you’ve got significant funds available from a grant, university research support, or private wealth, you can spend pretty much the entire summer attending not just string theory talks, but even string phenomenology talks (see a list here). There’s the String Vacuum Project meeting in Philadelphia starting May 23, from which one could head to String Phenomenology at Nordita from May 30 to June 25, then Strings 2011 in Uppsala until July 2, a workshop and conference in Spain from July 3-29, Les Houches for most of August, then String Phenomenology in Madison August 22-26 and SUSY11 at Fermilab keeping you busy until Labor Day.

Update: The hot topic these days is not string theory, but gauge theory amplitudes, using twistors. If you can’t afford strings, the price of the twistor talks is still low: a correspondent points out to me that for a registration fee of 15 pounds, you can attend Twistors, Geometry and Physics, a meeting this summer in honor of Penrose’s 80th birthday.

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### 35 Responses to Pricey Strings

1. Bee says:

And we all know why the fees are so high. Because you pay for the flights of the invited speakers.

2. chris says:

curious – i always have to pay my own trip even as an “invited speaker”.

3. lun says:

This is true for physics conferences in general: cost of upcoming Quark Matter conference, 600 Euro.

From what I understand (Anyone correct me if I am wrong, I heard this from participants), the string conference series is invited speakers only.
In practice, this and the number of attendants translate into an exercise of celebrities talking to each other and everybody else listening and hoping to get a word to someone edgewise.

If this is true (see disclaimer in previous paragraph), I would not attend such a conference, for a whole slew of reasons, summarized in the equation conference!=oscars. 🙂

4. confs says:

Lots of confs, not just on strings, are pricey. And if you look beyond physics, to medical or financial confs, you may have to pay USD 900 just for a one-day meeting. Phys/math confs are pertty cheap by comparison. If 200 bucks gives you pause, you probably can’t affort to gamble at the casinos and chug the cocktails either. What will the hookers think of you?

Invited speakers may or may not have to pay their own way. A friend of mine was invited to speak at a conf, but had to pay his own airfare (and registration fee!). But I invited him to stay at my home, and took him around ~ tourism, which persuaded him to accept the invitation. On the other hand, I was invited to an overseas conf and all my expenses were paid.

Numerous prestigious confs have invited speakers only. That does not detract from their quality.

5. 15p says:

If the Penrose b’day registration fee is 15 pounds I doubt the tea, coffee and sandwiches will be any good.

6. Peter,

Conference attendance costs amongst professional scientists?…Pity the amatuer who, arxiq aside, struggles to even read the typical academic paper for less than twenty dollars per download…

Henry

7. nbutsomebody says:

It is quite pointless to participate in the Strings. Most talks will possibly be available online. On a generic ground it is hard to understand what one may gain by paying $900. There is not so many new results in string theory, I wonder who is going to attend this conference and for what reason ? 8. Peter Woit says: nbutsomebody, Like most conferences, the main reason to go is to get a chance to meet up with other people in your field and talk to them. I suspect that very few people will be paying the \$900 themselves, with it being covered in some cases by the conference organizers, in many cases by research grants and other funds available from one’s home institution for this purpose. So, if there’s the possibility of a summer trip to Sweden, with someone else paying the bill, and you’ll get to hang out with friends and colleagues you haven’t seen in a while, why not go? If there’s money from some source to cover your flight and hotel, it will probably also cover the registration fee, even if it is \$900. Finding 500 string theorists with this happy financial situation though might be a bit of a challenge, but maybe not. At least in the US, the budgetary situation for mathematicians and theoretical physicists has been pretty good recently (partly due to “stimulus” funding). Then there’s an increasing amount of private foundation money available, for example the Simons Foundation has https://simonsfoundation.org/funding-guidelines/current-funding-opportunities/collaboration-grants-for-mathematicians 9. In Hell's Kitchen (NYC) says: I’ll take 3 kilos of strings for$9.99…

You should see the registration fees in Applied Math and Engineering conferences…in the stratosphere !

10. Jeff says:

Wow, you physics types really get jerked, unless you get paid a lot more than us mathematicians. Even the big yearly AMS meeting is much cheaper than this, and targeted conferences often don’t really have a registration. I ran a CBMS conference two summers ago, big name main speaker, bunch of well known invited talks, we were going to charge \$25 but ended up just forgetting about it. The banquet was less than \$50, wine included, at a really good restaurant.

11. King Ray says:

The truth is free, but falsehoods are usually charged for.

12. Peter Woit says:

Jeff,

Traditionally, particle theory groups are quite a bit better funded than mathematicians, with significantly more money available for things like paying conference fees.

13. Jeff says:

Peter,

Kind of figured that was the story, just moving the money around I guess. I mean, when you’re spending millions on equipment, what’s a few thousand on conference fees? The biggest expense for most mathematicians is probably a Mathematica license, or MathSciNet fees, peanuts in the particle physics community. I guess the fact that invited speakers have to pay there own way is for the same reason? For any sort of major speaker that would never happen in the math world – I mean if you’re giving a talk at a session at an AMS meeting you probably pay your own way, but if you’re one of the “invited speakers” you won’t, and if you’re giving a talk at a seminar somewhere you won’t pay you’re own way either usually.

14. nbutsomebody says:

Peter,

Thanks for the reply. Yes, it is indeed nice to meet friends and colleagues. For some people this is the motivation, however I do not think these kind of conference are good place to start new scientific collaborations. The reason being that young researchers do not talk in such conferences. Even if there is 3-5 min sessions for less well known people then it may be worth to go. One may talk to people personally but it is difficult to know beforehand who may be interested. Similarly it is difficult to know whose work I may be interested in.

Not to mention the fact, with the current situation of string theory, it is a clear wastage of time to fill ones ear with mostly useless talks and a fair-share of gibberish and promotions. Frankly it is difficult to see the point of arranging a global conference each year, there are not simply so many new results! A five yearly thing would possibly be more appropriate. So I am not going even if I have some NSF money.

15. sanjay sood says:

You are right about the hype being generated about ALICE with a likely boost by ALICE people. But one could try to understand their point of view as well. Gauge/gravity duality or AdS5/CFT4 duality does have some relevance to the properties of quark gluon plasma even though it’s a tenuous one. While QGP has neither the supersymmetry nor conformal symmetry, these two are essential in AdS5/CFT4 duality. On the other hand QGP has asymptotic freedom and running of gauge coupling which are missing in AdS5/CFT4 duality. Despite these major differences, AdS5/CFT4 has had some modest success in explaining the properties of QGP, especially the ratio of viscosity to entropy density bound.
One key component of AdS5/CFT4 duality is, by its very nature, a correspondence between a 4+1 dimensional space(AdS5) and a 3+1 space(Euclidean space). Since string theory is in fact the most important part of this duality(closed strings giving rise to quantum gravity in the AdS5 bulk) one could perhaps argue that this duality does in fact explains how space comes into existence. In other words how extra spatial dimensions come into being.
So even though one must be wary of any purported claim of string theory being able to unify all 4 forces, one could at least agree that string theory or Ads5/CFT4 duality has opened a new door that may lead to a new and very deep understanding of the nature of space.

16. Bernhard says:

Uau, there’s a conference on String “phenomenology”? And from Monday to Friday?

17. Peter Woit says:

sanjay sood,

I’m not seeing how a “tenuous” relation to gravity in AdS5 has anything much to do with gravity in 4d and unification, other than providing an opportunity to mislead people.

18. Rien says:

The high price of the Strings conference may have to do with the banana republic-ness of the dollar… Recently you’d get about 6 SEK per USD, while a few years ago, you’d get almost 9. That’s quite a drop.

19. Joe Minahan says:

Peter,

Thanks for providing a link to the Strings2011 conference for which I am one of the organizers.

However, I would like to correct some of the misconceptions about the costs involved. The registration fee you quote, while technically correct, applies only for same day registrants. Those who register in advance pay 3500 SEK +VAT, which corresponds to 700 USD. We are the first to admit that this is still a lot of money, but this is mainly due to circumstances beyond our control. These are: 1) The weak dollar. Today it is 6.25 crowns per dollar, 2 years ago when we agreed to host the conference the exchange was more than 8 crowns per dollar. 2) The strong Swedish crown. Not only has the crown risen against the dollar, but it has also increased substantially against the euro. Since the majority of the participants will be coming from Europe, this will affect them fairly severely. 3) The VAT. Starting in 2010 the Swedish government instituted a mandatory VAT on conference fees paid by participants coming from outside of Sweden. We, nor any other potential conference host in Sweden saw this coming in 2009. And there seems to be no way to get around it. 4) Not much outside funding. Vetenskapraadet (the Swedish equivalent of the NSF) and KVA (The royal scientific academy, the group responsible for choosing the Nobel prize winners) have generously contributed the maximum amount they are allowed to fund conferences. But this still does not come close to covering our costs.

Let me now say what the conference fee pays for. 1) Local costs for invited speakers. This is a long tradition of the Strings 19xx and 20xx conferences. However, despite what Sabine wrote in her comment, we do not pay for the speakers airfare. 2) The lecture hall and accompanying personnel. This also includes the technical facilities so that you and others can watch the proceedings live (or taped if you are not normally up at 4am). 3) Subsidizing the costs for students. On the registration page you will notice that PhD students pay half price. This money has to come from somewhere. 4) As you mentioned, coffee, lunches and a reception are provided.

Let me add a remark on having invited speakers. It is true that many of them are “celebrities”, but they are celebrities for a reason. I can almost guarantee that the most well attended talks will be by Maldacena and Witten, and they will surely give very interesting and exciting talks. Other speakers were chosen depending on their field and recent contributions. Many suggestions came from our International Advisory committee and we tried to round things out as best we could. Nevertheless, there are many deserving people who were regrettably not invited to speak because we did not have room.

Finally, while the number of participants is lower than in past years, we are still expecting to have a very exciting conference. This is the second strings conference I have helped organize. The first was the 1995 USC conference which only had 150 participants, and I think that one turned out okay.

Best Regards,
Joe Minahan

20. Peter Woit says:

Joe,

Thanks for the corrections and detailed explanations about the conference costs and funding. I certainly hope Witten or someone else has something up their sleeve that will match the 1995 USC conference, and look forward to free-loading by remotely watching some of the talks. Good luck with the conference!

21. lun says:

I do not doubt the ability of the celebrity speakers to give excellent and inspiring talks. But as peter seems to say, if this is all there is to a conference, why should someone (especially a student!) pay the fee rather than just watch the conference from home.
If the only talks are invited than, by definition, the conference will be about presenting results that there is a consensus are interesting, rather than discussing and deciding WHICH results are interesting and thought-provoking. The separation between talking celebrities and listening students will make it very difficult for a student to meaningfully participate in the discussion.

That might well work out for the best. However, sometimes the most interesting result of that year is one everyone on various international advisory committees would have happened to have missed. And in a less formal (in an organizing sense) conference where there are more submitted talks, such results might emerge and stimulate further work and discussion.

In the off-chance that this happens, I generally prefer smaller workshops to big conferences, for this reason.

22. Amos says:

The science of economics offers an explanation for the high cost of string theory workshops: rent seekng.

An economic rent is the ability to earn money without expending effort, like the way a landowner can (simplified, of course) sit back and receive a revenue stream by renting out his land.

“Rent seeking behavior” is the tendency of people to overspend in chasing rents, leading to a net economic loss. For example there must be ten thousand barristas in Los Angeles who could be starting productive careers but instead hope to become famous.

Tenure is also a rent. So is an academic reputation with salary-command potential. The great efforts spent to obatin these things, in which most contenders lose out, is economically wasteful rent seeking.

As the number of available string theory rents declines, rent-seekers will increase their expenditures in the hopes of obtaining the last few.

23. conf_student says:

I got my first job after graduation by going to a conference. My thesis supervisor did not attend, but he told me “Go speak to people, tell them that you are writing your thesis and expect to graduate in a few months, and are looking for a postdoc job, do they have any openings?” I was utterly terrified at this bare-faced way of doing things. (I later found out this is called “cold-calling” and it is a recognized technique and studies show that it is successful.) But anyway I took my life in my hands and approached some strange professor whom I had never heard of and made my pitch. As soon as I saw the big smile on his face and he put his friendly hand on my shoulder I knew that all would be ok. He didn’t have a job opening, but he pointed me to someone who did. I went to that person and he scheduled an interview, and I got my first job. There’s more to a conf than listening to talks via streaming video. Conferences are job fairs, too. And (some?) professors do not object to being approached by unknown grad students. I made many friends at that conf, friendships which have lasted many years. So I got my money’s worth from my registration fee (which was paid by a grant, of course).

24. Peter Woit says:

Amos,

The problem with your argument is that no one here is making a profit or collecting rent. The money that comes in from registration fees goes back out to cover the expenses of organizing the conference. This is not something you do to make money, and it’s a huge hassle. The rewards are intangible ones.

Joe Minahan did a good job of explaining here why their conference has pretty high fees. Most small math conferences I know about have many fewer people attending, and a quite healthy contribution from the NSF and some other sources. The small size means the organizational work can be done by the organizers themselves, and getting a venue at the university is easy and cheap. For a big conference you need staff and a large venue, and without a correspondingly larger financial contribution from grants, registration fees have to cover the difference.

25. Peter Woit says:

conf_student,

Thanks for the excellent explanation of why attending a conference is important for young scientists, even if they get nothing out of the talks. Conference organizers are well aware of this, it’s one reason that they offer much lower registration fees for students.

26. Christine says:

For what is worth, in Brazil a postdoc position is not considered a job at all. It is even amusing for us to imagine it seen as a “job”.

27. pdoc says:

Does a postdoc position (a non-job) pay a salary? Does a postdoc have to pay income taxes on that salary? (If yes, is “income” not correlated with “job”?) Is the postdoc expected to put in (regular?) office hours, if the position is not a job?

28. Christine says:

@pdoc: In Brazil, the answer is no to all your questions. Postdocs receive a fellowship (sort of) and are seen mostly as trainees. See e.g.: http://www.fapesp.br/en/5427

29. Mitchell Porter says:

Peter wrote:

“The hot topic these days is not string theory, but gauge theory amplitudes, using twistors.”

But these aren’t separate topics! It started with Witten’s twistor string, and the theories being studied have string duals in AdS space.

30. Bugsy says:

Christine- a postdoc grant of 5,000 reais per month tax-free I suppose is not so bad in Brazil, for a single person. In a weird move, the Brazilian govt is trying to make up for abysmal primary/high school education by expanding the universities enormously, so if the person ends up wanting to stay in Brazil, it appears there are at the moment lots of open positions at new federal universities throughout Brazil, in math or physics, at which a posdoc who learns Portuguese has a good shot. So rarely in today’s world, there are jobs. Now whether this is a good career move is a different question- you might “end up” in a small town someplace, with a nontrivial teaching load, or in a big city choked with cars like Sao Paulo or Rio.

31. Peter Woit says:

Mitchell Porter,

Just because you can find some connection between a topic and string theory, that doesn’t mean the topic is string theory.

Nati Seiberg of course predicted this years ago, when he said that no matter what replaced string theory, string theorists would “call it string theory”.

32. Mitchell Porter says:

Peter – d=4 N=4 Yang-Mills theory, which is at the center of the twistor/gauge enthusiasm, is *equivalent* to Type IIB superstring theory on a certain background. (Or if, against all the evidence, it *is* inequivalent, then it is so close that the difference consists of a very subtle deformation.) And Type IIB is, uncontroversially, old-school string theory, it’s not some new topic which has been adventitiously appropriated by string theorists in order to remain relevant. So string theory was rediscovered in an unexpected place.

It *is* remotely conceivable that the string description will recede into the background conceptually, and people will prefer to think in terms of twistors, but I doubt it. A more reasonable question might be, does this mean that strings “mean” something different to what people thought in the 1980s? What I mean is that from the d=4 field-theoretic perspective, the AdS dimension, the compact dimensions, and the extended objects (strings and branes) all emerge from renormalization group flow and the structure of moduli space. It might be argued that strings and branes should therefore be conceived as abstract in some way, and one might wish to reserve the notion of physicality proper for the fields in four dimensions. I think *that* is a debate with a future. But if string theory is truly irrelevant to reality, then so is the twistor/gauge revolution.

33. Peter Woit says:

Mitchell,

As far as I can tell, the reasons twistors are useful in studying perturbative gauge theory amplitudes have little to nothing to do with string theory. But it’s an evolving story, we’ll see what the final result is when people really understand how to formulate these theories in twistor space. Maybe strings will play a central role, we’ll see. Until then, I think continually hyping the importance of strings in cases where they aren’t the center of attention is PR, not science.

34. Christine says:

@Bugsy: I didn’t say to be a postdoc in Brazil was *bad* (in terms of temporary earning), only that it is not seen as a *job*. The notion of job is simply different here. There are openings (jobs!) in federal universities/institutes, but they require disputed contests. I had to win over 86 candidates to get a permanent position in a related area (not my primary area) in a military institute, considering at the time personal constraints (city, family, etc). What I have *is* a job, but as you say, not the best career move. But I guess you’re right: there are probably more opportunities now in Brazil than in the USA/EU, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else anyway.

In any case there are no guarantees that a postdoc will end up exactly where she/he planned, in terms of career and city. That is why a postdoc is seen here as a trainee with a temporary grant, and for us this is not exactly a “real job”.

35. Shantanu says:

conf_student, I wish it is as rosy as you point out. I wanted to switch fields after ph.d and my thesis advisor and people who wrote letters for me did not know anyone among the jobs I applied and none of the conferences I went to ever helped me.