The beautiful Cape Town Strings 2020 logo/poster.
This year’s big annual flagship conference in String theory, Strings 2020
, ended two days ago. It was a massive success, and it was held entirely online. There were more than 2000 registered participants from all around the world, with sessions where a large portion of that number were engaged simultaneously! This conference’s attendance more usually ranges at around 300 – 400, as far as I remember, so this was a spectacular change. The success was made possible by -most importantly- the willingness of many people to take part and engage with each other to a degree that was foreign to most participants, combined with smart and tireless effort by the team of organizers in Cape Town, where the conference was originally going to be held physically. There were excellent talks (selected by the programme committee) and many illuminating discussions.
Due to the pandemic, the conference was originally going to be cancelled (or at least postponed to much later in the year), but organizer Jeff Murugan announced at relatively short notice that they were instead going to attempt to do it online on the original dates, and it is wonderful that so many people around the world engaged, instead of just shrinking away into the Covid-19 gloom.
The other major component of the success is what I want to discuss here. It was the use, sometimes in concert, of tools such as Zoom (for talk delivery and live “face to face” interactions), the chat component of Zoom (for text exchanges), Slack (for text exchanges, organized differently), and YouTube (for live casting the Zoom sessions or seeing them later). (Of course, email too, but we’ve come to accept that mode of communication so routinely that we don’t tend to list it among “novel” remote tools, but it is one too.)
As one of the large international advisory committee for this year’s Strings (and for the record, I’d done pretty much nothing on this committee except nod electronically from time to time, as is standard in this role), I’ve been watching the various emails of congratulations go out to Jeff and his co-organizers post-conference (also standard), and also various thoughts about the role of the Zoom necessity, and what role it ought (or ought not) to play moving forward. The next annual conference, Strings 2021, will be in Sao Paolo, and of course, the orgnanizers for that will need to start planning soon (also standard).
There have been strong opinions on both sides about Zoom, and remote participation in general. (I started a Facebook and Twitter thread with such a discussion earlier in the week, anticipating (not particularly presciently) that such discussions will need to be had.) It is interesting to see what people think, and where various people lie on the spectrum of opinions. Everybody is genuinely interested in doing what they think is best for the science, but (as often happens) clearly there needs to be some convergence as to what that “best” is supposed to look like.
Anyway, I am certainly not going to report specific parts of others contribution to the committee’s discussion here, but I can report to you my own thoughts, that I wrote in the form of an email to the whole committee soon after the exchanges of thoughts began. I invite you to read it, share it if you want (using the link to this whole post), and even contribute some thoughts in the comments. Or start your own conversations elsewhere. Some of the issues are generally applicable to conferences in any field, but note that there are aspects of the discussion and concerns that are very specific to what has been a (relatively) close-knit and small community of theoretical physicists, where sharing computational techniques, traditions, folklore, and tricks of the trade has been hugely important in producing the many (and ongoing) spectacular discoveries that have been made over the decades.
Here’s the email message that I sent (I made a small but important addition where I say “update”.):
(Saturday 4th July 2020, 09:41 PST)
What a wonderful strings meeting! Thanks to all, both organizers and participants. It is engagement in both directions that makes for a great success like this. The fact that many people (including so many on this email thread) actively and visibly supported the meeting helped enormously.
On the Zoom issue I think we are at an important decision point. First, I think it is key that we recognize that nobody is suggesting that we suddenly do all such meetings using Zoom. We should approach the issue from a position of looking to see how it can help us do what we do even better.
Yes, face to face discussions, serendipitous encounters, chats over drinks, experiencing new cuisines together, etc., all make for a lovely and highly valuable conference experience. These are core social modes of discourse that glue us together and make us strong as a community, and scientifically. We should not try to *replace* those things, but *enhance* them, and to find ways of sharing some the benefits of them with those who cannot take part directly. And, very importantly, we should also consider our environmental footprint as a community, and show leadership in that regard too.
I’ll simply list a few things to consider before we dismiss the massive benefits that an online component of significant size can bring to our scientific community.
(1) Inclusion of many people who do not have the funds to attend such meetings, but whose voices can and should be part of the community’s conversations.
(2) Inclusion of people who have family constraints, and who cannot easily disappear for 10 days to fly across the world. Again, they can and should be part of the community’s conversations. (Update: Consider also people with health or accessibility constraints here too.)
(3) Inclusion of groups who are either not or are barely on the radar of our community right now, but who should be. (They intersect with the previous two categories in some cases, but not in all cases.)
(4) Incorporating these tools in our meetings will also allow for entirely new kinds of conversation and interaction that most of us in this email conversation can’t fully imagine. The young people that have been mentioned a lot in emails so far have -in addition to the traditional modes- quite different ways of communicating ideas and starting conversations. This often involves the kinds of tools (zoom, slack, etc) that we’re discussing now. (E.g. the “I want to speak with X about Y” type planning can happen even in this mode.) So I think we should seek opinion from younger people about what could be useful in such meetings too.
Again, let me say that we don’t do these things by replacing the core physical aspect, but we make the electronic tools a large and significant component of the meeting in order to enhance them, and extend their reach. If we can have the usual ~400 people physically present, but 1200 others or more also participating (live) electronically, I’d say that would be a great mix.
Looking more broadly than just Strings meetings, again we have an opportunity. Yes, we all get Zoom fatigued at times, but I’d say it has been (and can continue to be) a net positive for our field, in a way that may be as significant as the Arxiv was when it was launched (~1990). For those of you at well connected places and who are well funded, it might not seem as significant, but all of a sudden (speaking for myself and for many others I’ve spoken to) I’ve been able to give seminars in places I’d not been invited to before, and to attend such seminars as well, and to invite speakers to our own seminar series and have an international audience, sparking all sorts of interesting conversations that simply would not have happened. I’ve also had valuable one on one physics meetings (through Zoom) with colleagues far away that would not have happened were it not for the Covid situation. We could have done this as a community long ago, but it needed a pandemic to force us to realize it was just that we had not taken the time to learn to use the tools well enough.
So that brings me to the tools themselves. Zoom seminars and meetings especially. A lot can be got out of them, but it is a matter of learning the best practices that can make them most useful. Keeping as many live faces on screens as possible can be good for both the speakers and the participants, and so forth, and so encouragement for participants to do that (when possible) is essential. As is building in longer breaks between zoom sessions, and so forth. There are ways of having lively Q+A too, but I won’t go into all that here.
Sorry for the long message. I just wanted to say that we should consider Zoom (and other long range tools) as a major opportunity to enhance our community and the science we do, as opposed to a necessary evil.