1. This talk presents a path that
might one day lead to a testable
new hypothesis or new data.
An SML1 talk does not even
strive to present scientific
conclusions. Nonetheless, it
can surprise and delight by
illuminating a new research
avenue that has become within
arm’s reach, and it can shape
the future of the field by its
creativity and prescience.
2. The speaker presents a
testable hypothesis with no
constraining data or data
whose interpretation is beyond
the reach of state-of-the-art
theoretical calculations. Such
a talk can be boring, or it can
be trendsetting, pointing the
community to a fruitful direction for new work.
3. An SML3 talk applies the
full scientific method to the
problem at hand, in whatever
form the method is customarily used in the field. It compares a hypothesis to a data set
and derives an unambiguous
interpretation. However, so far the conclusion has
garnered only limited attention from the scientific
community, perhaps because it mainly confirms or
reproduces previous work—or perhaps because it is
new and thrilling.
4. This talk compares a hypothesis to a data set and
appears to derive an unambiguous interpretation.
Other researchers have confirmed or disputed this
result in their talks and publications.
5. The speaker describes data and calculations that
the community recognizes as part of its culture and
history. Perhaps it describes the roots of a research
paradigm that continues to spawn textbooks and doctoral theses. Perhaps it is about an old paradigm that
has since been superseded. Attending such a talk can
Some of us will
never be satisfied
by a talk unless we
see a hypothesis
or discarded. Others
may find that realm
of topics too limiting
and yearn for a
glimpse into the
provide new insights, or it could be
more about the pleasure of simply
meeting a scientific celebrity.
It’s tempting to say that talks
in the 1–2 range are more about
marketing than science, but I’m
not sure that’s the case. It seems to
me that science is the process of
moving from 1 to 5—and that this
progress emerges from the community as a whole, not from any
one scientist. So you can’t really
describe a single talk as more
“scientific” than another.
Also, I believe that talks at all
points on the scale can be engaging
and full of useful information, or
dull and tiresome. The “marketing”
is ultimately about whether the
talk meets the needs of the audi-
ence—whether the needs are for
information about the natural world
or inspiration about future projects.
So a talk on any research at any
stage can be good or bad marketing.
Curiously, I’ve found that dif-
ferent scientific institutions seem
to prefer different kinds of talks.
Perhaps academic departments
gravitate towards talks with higher
SMLs, while government labs tend
to prefer lower ones. Maybe that’s
because government labs often focus on big projects that
require lots of planning. That seems to be something to
keep in mind when you are applying for jobs.
Ultimately, I think there is a place for all kinds of
talks in our scientific universe. Perhaps the 4s and 5s
belong at the beginning of a conference session, while
the 1s, and 2s belong at the end. Talks about String
Theory are often 1s, while review talks are 4s or 5s.
What do you think? Should your department focus
on 1s and 2s, or 4s and 5s? Or should it aim to hire
scientists who operate at both ends of the spectrum.
What is the SML of your scientific talks?
Marc J. Kuchner ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is an
astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of
the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His
website can be found at www.marketingforscientists.com/.