Communications 101

Communications 101
August 18, 2011

Nuclear Physics is a big science. In fact, if you are a student of 20th Century science history, nuclear physics was the first big science. We work in groups of ten, twenty, one hundred, two hundred … how many collaborators sign a Hall B paper? In order to build the apparatus, more people still, the designers, engineers and technicians need to know what is needed. So, there have to be some interactions with exchange of information. When the results start to appear, perhaps first they appear on the screen of the archetypal graduate student slaving in the middle of the night while her supervisor sleeps; but soon, perhaps as early as breakfast, colleagues start to get to know about it, the supervisor starts asking questions. Again, interactions with exchange of information must happen. Eventually that paper gets written. There is enough information exchanged that all those people agree to sign and submit the data. The student is grilled and transmits some of her knowledge to the Ph. D. committee and gets rewarded with a conference talk.

So, nuclear physicists must be great at the exchange of information, at communication!! Duh! You wish!

When a team competes for the reward of operating a national lab, or to build FRIB (Facility for Rare Isotope Beams), the process contains a sophisticated oral examination. This can last all day, contains short, coordinated presentations, response to questions in such a way as to demonstrate the ability to respond to data and to articulate a plan, briefly. Doing this for the first time is a humbling experience. You will find that apart from other functions, the consultants brought in to assist include at least one speech trainer. My own experience, working along with another senior colleague really put me down; remember this is 25 years after I had made a plenary presentation on semi-inclusive hadron production at the Bonn Lepton Photon Conference in 1981. My task was to develop and deliver a five-minute speech. Fine! But without a single audible pause. No “ums” or “ers”, “wells”, nor even any long inaudible pauses in which you walked in circles or scratched your crown or other body part. The coach would snap his fingers every time I sinned. My colleague after one session said he wasn’t sure whether the “um” led to a click or a click to an “um."

So, then you get to be lab director, and you think you have some idea about how you can keep that stuff under control, and concentrate on the stuff that really matters. It’s clearly most important to fix the radiation damage being generated in Hall A, or Hall C, or perhaps to understand that the radiative corrections are under control. Wrong! Nearly the only thing that is important is communication. I am drafting this just before lunch on August 18, 2011. Senator Mark Warner is due at 2 p.m. Dean Golembeski is worrying that I do not have the mandatory messages down pat, that the posters are in the wrong order, that they are even at the wrong time in the visit.

I told the board that interviewed me for the job that visiting the Hill was not going to be my forte, but we were there in the spring, we were there in July and it is expected that I will be there in September.

Even at the physics level, the name of the game is clarity. The transversity guys sent us their results this week, a précis of two Physical Review Letters on about five transparencies. What did I do? I mailed back saying we need the relevant stuff on just one clear, self-communicating transparency so that Tim Hallman (DOE SC/NP) can brag about it to Bill Brinkman (DOE SC). We are continually trying to get the "one liner" that is associated with our physics in the heads and speech of the top people in DOE. Dean and the Public Affairs office are trying to come up with schemes that help us, schemes that will allow us to give that talk to the Rotary Club that captivates the audience.

Communication is everything!

Clear, concise communication can be daunting, but it’s not all negative; whenever we get a visitor and I get a few minutes with them as they are leaving. They tell me how the staff is enormously enthusiastic about working here. It happened last week when the CEO of Dominion Generation was here. I’ll bet Sen. Mark Warner will make some analogous comment today.