Readers write: Seminars at Cornell University

Readers wrote to scientist Ken Bloom about his recent article, “Why do we have a seminar on Friday afternoons?” which recounts the beginnings of the wine-and-cheese seminar tradition at Fermilab, a tradition that has its roots in the Cornell University physics department schedule, when Fermilab’s founding director, Robert Wilson, was a faculty member there.

Two Fermilab scientists who conducted research at Cornell responded to Bloom’s piece with their own memories.

Readers write:

Alternative use for an ashtray


I really enjoyed your “Why do we have a seminar on Friday afternoons”. I gave one of those talks at Cornell when I was looking for a postdoc position. It was a little intimidating that no one really seemed be paying attention. Some were reading newspapers while others appeared to be asleep. Yet they interrupted me with good questions. Anyway, I got the job and regularly attended the Friday afternoon seminars learning to play my own role there. I remember one Friday when the talk was going long and seemed to be rambling. Mac (Boyce McDaniel) finally got tired of it after it had overrun the time. He picked up an ashtray in the middle of the table that we sat around during the talks and slammed it down declaring, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m going home to have some dinner.” We all went home for dinner. It was a very amusing game.

Roger Dixon

Coffee mugs and luminary scientists

Hi Ken,

Thanks for the column on the LNS Journal Club seminars. I was a grad student at Cornell a bit earlier, 1971-1978. Back then classes often ran until 4:25, so 4:30 coffee and a 4:45 seminar start made sense. It seems to me that the Monday afternoon general physics seminar started at 4:30. In about 1974 the postdoc who was in charge of the Journal Club, Rusty Humphrey, tried to push the start time to 4:30 and was vigorously rebuffed.

Regarding the end time, I can pass on two anecdotes, one from my time and one a legend from Wilson’s days. I distinctly remember a distinguished professor from another Ivy League institution who shall remain nameless approaching 6:00 with a thick stack of slides remaining to be shown. He was firmly told that the seminar ended at 6:00 and he should not be offended if people left. In a pleading tone he said that he still had some fascinating data to show if anyone wanted to stay. Nobody did.

In the ’70s people were still telling a story reflecting Wilson’s theatrical nature. At the time there was a large collection of coffee mugs that were used to serve the coffee. As some speaker droned on with no indication of wrapping up the talk, Wilson started gathering the coffee mugs in front of him on the table and building a pyramid. When the clock reached 6:00, he swept the mugs off the table and the loud crash ended the show.

It was at a Journal Club early as a graduate student that it really sank in where I was. The speaker was describing a calculation using the Bethe-Salpeter equation. To the speaker’s right, about 5 feet away, was Hans Bethe. To the speaker’s left, about 10 feet away, was Ed Saltpeter. It was a theoretical talk well over my head, but I’ve often wondered whether the equation was really at the root of his work or whether it was a gratuitous reference from a favor-seeking job candidate.

Dave Harding