ISM 2021 Review

The past week saw 6 days of the latest edition of “Indian Strings Meeting” hosted by IIT Roorkee. Well, more like hosted by Aalok Misra with some background support from his ‘tech team’ taking care of Zoom calls and YouTube live streams and Webpage updates. I could not attend the Zcalls because of connection problems (at my end I guess) as audio and/or shared screen would randomly drop so I mostly watched the YT live streams. The latter was quite a barren region with <20 viewers at any given time compared to the former which was bustling with <50 participants (i.e., whenever I could join and see and hear something relevant). I wonder what happened to the ~400 registered participants on the website!

Anyway, enough with the personnel logistics, let’s get on with the real logistics that is most relevant in a conference review. That of how many talks were there and of what kind. I will categorize the talks based on four topics extracted from the six review talks, two more topics for 3d field theories and non-3d field theories and one last ‘miscellaneous’ topic (as expected) to catch all those that do not fit into the aforementioned six topics. I do feel like I should mention a disclaimer here, before we have a look at the table, that this categorization of talks is my personal subjective opinion and not to be taken as that of the speakers or Aalok or ISM’s NOC or anyone else for that matter. If anyone does not agree with this categorization, they are welcome to comment below or write their own post and share it as a comment below. (No guarantee that it will change my opinion but if it does, I will be happy to edit things around here accordingly.) Here goes the full table with raw data mined from here:

Topic Review Talks (60m) Research Talks (30m) Short Presentations (15m) Total Time (h)
(A)dS/CFT + Holography RG1 + EP6 + DG6 = 3 TT1 + KN1 + SA2 + SD2 + RL3 + KS3 = 6 SM6 + AS6 = 2
BMS Symmetry + Flat Space Holography LD2 CK1 + AB2 + MM2 + AB2 + RB4 + AYS5 + PP5 = 7 PP5 + DG6 = 2 5
Black Holes + Information Theory DH3 AM1 + AV2 + OP3 + DS3 + NK4 + AA4 + PR6 + JC6 + JKB6 + RS6 + SP6 = 11 AK1 + AKP2 + SM2 + SK3 + AG4 + HP4 + GB5 + AB5 = 8
Amplitudes + (OTO) Correlators JP6 AK1 + AZ1 + AS3 + AR5 + AM5 + SK6 = 6 SD1 + APS1 + SK2 + TS3 + PH5 + AM6 = 6
3d (S)CFTs AM1 + SG2 + KC2 + SM3 + SJ5 = 5 RRJ1 + NP4 = 2 3
Other Field Theories RG2 + YT3 + CG3 + ZK3 + SD4 + VBS4 + NS4 = 7 DM4
Miscellaneous AM1 + BS3 + SG3 + KR5 + LA5 + NS5 + AM6 = 7 MS3 + MM3 = 2 4
Total: 6 49 23 36¼

Let’s acknowledge that the notation used in the table is self-explanatory: the letters are the initials of the speakers (no effort is put to break the degeneracy of AM’s, et al) and the number denotes the day on which they spoke. I have doubly cross-checked the data on the official webpage and my categorization above for consistency. Normally, I don’t put anything up on my blogs, unless it is quadruply checked but since even the official data is not rigorously vetted, I don’t think I need to exert myself that much in this post. For example, a speaker (Parijat Dey from Uppsala University, Sweden) appears in the detailed list of talks but not in the schedule table, which I guess happened because two speakers cancelled their talks on the fifth day which were then moved to the sixth day! Also, at least one 15m talk appears in the list of 30m talks (or vice-versa) and of course, the big elephant in the room is that Enrico Pajer’s hour-long review talk appears in a 30m timeslot and it was treated as something in-between! So given that the raw data is not too trustworthy, I think the doubly checked table appearing above is more than enough for my purposes here.

I also have some pet peeves about the formatting/styling employed for the “Schedule” webpage linked above. I mean, who in the ‘tech team’ had the ‘brilliant’ idea of sorting the detailed list of talks wrt length of the talks and then further sorting alphabetically (which is also not quite correct) wrt last names of the speakers? This leads to the following bad user experience: when someone clicks a speaker’s name in a particular timeslot of the schedule table, they are catapulted at warp-speeds through the long webpage to the speaker details but now they’re lost (& disoriented) because they don’t see any other speaker details around the timeslot they were just looking at a moment ago! This problem could have been avoided if the speakers were sorted chronologically and not alphabetically (basically, focus on talks and not speakers). Also, that awfully long webpage could have been shortened by light-years if a tabbed interface were used for the six days, with each day’s tab showing the chronological details of the talks. I also find the insistence on “speakers of” review/research talks in the headings for the corresponding sections but not for the short presentations pretty hilarious (see the screenshot below). As if the people giving those short presentations are not worthy of being even identified with a common noun. Talk about inequalities prevalent in academia! This problem also would not have risen if the talks were chronologically listed. A lot fixed with a simple change in one’s viewpoint.

ISM 2021 Speakers?

Anyway, enough of my rant about webpage development (I mean I could have done a better job myself of formatting/organizing that page… Come on, man! Move on! Your rant just spilled on to the next para… and I will have to start a new clean para again!).

That table above presents quite a boring view so let’s look at a colourful chart based on it instead:

Stacked Bar Chart 1

We see that the topic of black holes and related stuff like entanglement entropy, information paradox was extremely popular taking up more than eight hours, i.e., more than a day in a six-days-long conference. The three other main topics in this conference were “(A)dS/CFT & holography”, “S-matrices, scattering amplitudes & correlators (incl. OTOCs)”, and “BMS symmetry & flat space holography”, which took up roughly a day each. The talks on field theories in various dimensions took up another day with most people focussing on 3d (super)conformal field theories but some quite interesting talks on 2d and 4d theories too. Disappointingly, my personal favourite “5d SCFTs” barely got mentioned. Finally, the miscellany of talks included a talk on string phenomenology, a couple on constructing actions for Weyl supergravity multiplets, and a few on mathematical aspects like new Lie algebras, machine learning, etc. Before we move on, let us also see the above data split day-wise. Can you spot the only topic which was talked about every single day? The answer won’t surprise you!

Stacked Bar Chart 2

Now, I guess I should lay down my own personal views on ISM 2021. First (confession), I didn’t watch all the talks but most of them to be able to have some motivation to write this post. Second, the constant shifts of the schedule by at least 15m (and going up to 45m as the day progressed) really twisted my holography (reference to DG6’s talk if you don’t get my drift). Third, I was looking forward to some talks because of their titles, some because of their speakers. Both of these types didn’t disappoint. Others were hits and misses. Fourth, the constant bug in almost all of the talks was that typical questioner/commenter who hadn’t properly formulated (or even envisioned) the question before opening his (let’s be real, it’s definitely ‘his’ not ‘her’!) mouth, leading to mostly vague questions or tautological statements disguised as comments. That led in turn to more haw-ing, hmm-ing, “I mean(t)”’s, “you know, like”’s, “the the, so that thing”’s, “the usual thing, you know”’s, “so so, that’s what… the the, what I meant was”’s, etc. You get the idea why it bugged me, right? I wish Indian institutes had “graduate seminar courses” like I had at Stony Brook where professors actually gave you proper feedback on your talks. In addition, listening to fellow students in that ‘classroom’ setting made you aware of what to do and what not to do during talks, both yours and others. Some of the speakers & listeners of this conference could have definitely used some exposure to such a course. Fifth, I didn’t listen to most of the discussion sessions, except one where the bugging became quite unbearable and I just had to leave. I had better things to do like watching “Have I Got a Bit More News for You?” or having dinner or anything else.

Finally, we have to discuss what does all this mean. As in, what is the string theory research landscape in India like? Where is this research program headed in India? What are the differences compared to similar programs in other countries? And so on… I couldn’t care less about answering such boring questions. Indirect answers (or sketches thereof) to some of these questions are already available in the previous but one para. Even then, one ‘answer’ that just screams out of the data and charts above is: The ST research landscape is mostly covered by two (composite) peaks, those of black holes and (any kind of) holography. The two peaks from which I am as far away as possible given the plain areas of my research of the past decade. Let’s end this geological metaphor and get back on track of the un-punny sentences. My research falls majorly in the two minor categories of 3d (S)CFTs and other field theories (mostly dealing with 5d theories, as mentioned above) with some minor overlap with the major category of AdS/CFT & holography. As we all know, 2021 was not a good year for many reasons for many people, and I can now add this one revelation to my personal list of such reasons. This might urge one to ask so would I be moving towards the peaks from the plains? Oh, Hell No! I am quite happy with the plains I prowl on.

Wait, there’s one last thing to talk about: Discussion session on gender imbalance in STEM. I guess one of the reasons we have this problem is we talk about it at the end. Ok, enough with the jokes. This was a serious discussion… I learnt a lot with some precise language and data fleshing out the vague ideas I have had about the problem. The panelists in this discussion session represented ‘all walks of academic life’ who shared their experiences, talked about steps taken, being taken, steps in the pipeline, etc. Even general ideas encompassing treatment of minorities and amendment of systemic procedures to be more inclusive got an airing out. I encourage everyone to listen to this session, even re-listen, so that things (start to) change for the better.

Happy New Year! 🎉

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