Nearly every Friday at 4 p.m., Fermilab presents the Joint Experimental-Theoretical Physics Seminar. While there are many seminars and colloquia during a week at Fermilab, this particular seminar — also known as “the wine and cheese talk” for the refreshments that are traditionally served beforehand — is the lab’s principal venue for showing off new results in particle physics. Thus, it’s always well-attended, and a coveted venue for speakers.
But why have the most important seminar of the week late on a Friday afternoon? It can’t be convenient for a visiting speaker who wants to get back home for the weekend, nor for potential audience members who might have family commitments. Of all the days of the working week for an afternoon seminar, this might be the worst.
The scheduling of the wine and cheese seminar goes back deep in the history of the lab — all the way to founding director Robert Wilson. Before he came to the plains of Illinois, Wilson was the director of the Laboratory for Nuclear Studies at Cornell University, where I got my Ph.D. and learned the story of the Friday seminar from senior faculty members there. (I might be the youngest person in the world with an answer to this question.) Wilson created a working culture at Cornell that was all about getting things done. Major accelerator projects were built under budget and ahead of schedule, and then they ran all the time. (They even ran through the December holidays; I have happy memories on being on shift for Christmas Day.) Wilson famously brought this can-do culture with him to Fermilab, as we will be hearing more about during Fermilab’s 50th anniversary year.
One method that Wilson had to make sure that things got done was to incentivize people to work full days. And thus, the main particle physics seminar, the Laboratory of Nuclear Physics Journal Club, was held at 4:45 p.m. on Fridays. Wilson had a simple plan: Everyone was to work all through Friday afternoon for the reward of a seminar on an interesting physics topic, and perhaps also coffee and a donut. (For some graduate students, that donut was the main meal of the day, but that is a tale for another time.) And this same modus operandi was brought to Fermilab.
Now, a seminar that started at 4:45 p.m. could easily run until 6 p.m. That might have worked when Wilson was lab director at Cornell and the physicists at the lab were all men who, if they had families, most likely had wives tending to the house. In our modern times of greater (but admittedly not perfect) gender equality and more families with two working parents, such a late seminar is inconvenient. In the mid-1990s, my adviser undertook the delicate political task of getting the seminar time changed in the name of family friendliness. She succeeded, and there was much rejoicing. For the first ever 4 p.m. Journal Club, we celebrated by hanging streamers in the seminar room and buying a cake decorated with a clock that had its hands set to the new start time. (After the change, one emeritus professor at Cornell was overheard saying, “I can finally go out to a movie on a Friday night!”) Four p.m. is also the start time of the Fermilab wine and cheese seminar, and it seems a good compromise between a full work day and a good evening with family. (The Cornell seminar now starts at 3 p.m. — pretty radical!)
The Cornell seminar had two interesting rules that were passed down from its earliest days. One was that as soon as the clock hit 6 p.m., any and all audience members were allowed to leave, without any stigma, no matter where the speaker was in the presentation. Wilson apparently did have some limits. That worked well when the seminar started at 4:45, but once we moved the seminar to 4, we were never sure when a speaker had gone on too long.
The other one was that the presentation was not allowed to get “too theoretical.” Wilson had a simple metric for that: if the mathematical symbol γ5 appeared on the presentation slides, the speaker had crossed the line. (γ5 represents a product of Dirac matrices that, when used in quantum-mechanical amplitudes, indicates a parity-violating interaction.) Apparently Wilson would start berating the speaker whenever this occurred. I never saw this rule enforced when I was a graduate student (long after Wilson had retired), but on the rare occasion when a γ5 showed up on a slide, I would notice the more senior professors exchanging knowing glances, surely remembering how things were back in the day.
I don’t know if these rules have ever been enforced at Fermilab. But if you’re ever at the wine and cheese seminar late on a Friday afternoon, and the speaker shows a γ5, take a look around the room. If you notice someone rolling his eyes and checking the clock, then feel free to say hello to me after the seminar is over. As long as it’s before 6 p.m.