Back in 2005 some of us were discussing a lecture series programme to mark the centenary of Albert Einstein’s annus mirabilis. We were excited as we discussed names of speakers that we could invite. There was the usual animated debate about whether A or B was the better choice for a chosen topic … I must confess all of us got rather carried away by the whole business. Until someone burst the balloon and asked: “but are we sure that enough people will turn up for these lectures?”.
Poor attendance at lectures has been a worry for at least a decade. Now it’s a serious worry! And what’s an even greater concern is that while an erudite scientist will have difficulty in getting a decent audience, a talk by someone like Mandira Bedi will cause traffic jams.
What’s going wrong? First, I fear that honest scientific curiosity is vanishing. Nobody wants to sit down and ask or discover something new. Actually, nothing could be easier. You just have to settle into a comfortable chair and allow an expert to educate or enlighten you. These days we also have great audiovisual facilities that can make the lecture even more enjoyable. But something somewhere isn’t working out.
Second, it seems that we are getting increasingly impatient. We want everything to happen quickly; we don’t want to (or can’t) sit tight and read or listen with deep concentration for even two hours. We give up too soon. Often, we even doze off.
Third, the art of public speaking is probably on the decline (“where do you find a C V Raman today, or even a Ramaseshan?”, you are often asked). While I believe that we still have a fair collection of outstanding speakers, I do agree that the average quality is declining. You could at least partially blame Microsoft’s PowerPoint for this. I find ever so many lectures (‘presentations’ we now call them!) where a ridiculous collection of 75 slides is projected at a frenetic pace. In most cases, the presenter is merely reading out the stuff that you can read yourself on the screen. Now that isn’t very interesting, is it?
Fourth, lectures are probably getting too specialized. Even the lecture announcement on the notice board, with the most frightening looking title, extends to three or four lines. This certainly isn’t the best invitation. And if you still find the courage to enter the lecture hall, the speaker swamps you with the most daunting looking partial differential equations on the first slide itself.
Finally, we appear to have lost the habit of attending lectures. Even 20 years ago, every department had its Monday lecture or Friday colloquium where attendance was ‘mandatory’ (in a certain sense; no one would admonish you if you failed to turn up one Friday, but you didn’t feel good after missing the lecture). Now we cheerfully skip such lectures with the pompous excuse that there was “an important meeting with the auditors”, or, worse still, “because it clashed with my department’s ISO 9001 review”.
2012 Postscript: This 2005 lament may have lost a bit of its sting. I’m not sure about really technical lectures, but popular lectures now seem better than ever before. Presentation tools have become so much better and YouTube carries the message so much farther. TED Talks for example have so much humour, passion and content … all encapsulated in less than 20 minutes.