Shaping the Future of Scientific Conferences

The beautiful Strings Cape Town 2020 logo/poster.

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)

Dear All,

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.



Raisin Urgency

cinnamon--raisin bread making montageReplenishing critical supplies of cinnamon-raisin bread for the household, a couple of days ago. Not a bad result, given that it is so long since I’ve made this kind of loaf. The recipe turned out a little raisin-poor for my tastes, and it was a little dry (possibly my fault), so I will be improvising some variations on the recipe and baking method to improve these aspects.


Spectral, II

What’s that now? You want more physics teases? Ok. That dotted line is a (known) JT gravity Schwarzian spectral density. That red line? It’s the fully quantum corrected result! To all orders in topology and beyond! See my paper that appeared today on the arXiv.

(For experts: The red line is made up of about 2000 points for each of which I know the energy, and the full wave function for an associated problem. Using those I can compute lots of things, to good accuracy. One example is the full non-perturbative spectral form factor, that I showed last post.)


Spectral, I

Ok here goes. Been bursting to tell you this for many weeks. Ever wondered what the fully non-perturbative spectral form factor for a JT gravity model looks like? For real? Not in some special limit or simplified model? Here you go*.

Paper out on Monday! (I plan on doing a post or two about what this all means.)


*For the experts, note that this shows both non-perturbative and strong coupling effects, which are usually hard to get at. I show how in the paper.


To end the week, a remarkable coincidence. This morning, I was listening to one of Wynton Marsalis’ greatest recordings, his 1983 album with the Haydn trumpet concerto in E flat major. Just found it on by accident on the radio, and found myself wondering what he’s up to these days as I have not listened to his music in a long while. Then went on a long ramble to my wife about jazz trumpeters, and classical ones, and the wonderful film score work of Terence Blanchard on all those Spike Lee films that I love, and so on. I suspect she stopped listening 20% of the way in…. Then tonight, browsing the Guardian’s website, I found – again by accident – an opinion piece from the very same Wynton Marsalis, on race and America. And it is so very well written indeed. So I thought I’d share it, before I put this all down for this evening’s big event: watching Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, just out… with music by Terence Blanchard…



Pausing “Business as Usual”

This Wednesday (10th June), in support of #BlackLivesMatter and the demonstrations taking part worldwide, there will be a day of action in various parts of academia to simply stop doing “business as usual” while the horrors of what is routinely done to black people at all levels of society continue.

What people choose to do on that day is up to them, but there are suggestions as a number of websites. I encourage you to go there and read what they have to say, and make up your own mind. A good start is the ShutDownStem site, and search under #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM and #Strike4BlackLives on social media for chatter, activity, and more resources. The Particles For Justice group, led by people in or close to my field, have also joined in to lead and encourage, and their site is here, again with lots of suggestions for types of action to get involved in.

Frankly, having seen and heard (over many cycles) a lot of rhetoric and symbolic action go nowhere on this issue, I’m not sure how I feel about this (which is partly why I’ve not posted about this for a few days since it was announced). …And I could go on at length about all the “turning points” people tell me that they can see “this time”, and how familiar it all is to me, but I won’t. I just hope that I’m wrong and that something will come of everything people are doing in their own ways. Hope is a powerful thing, and I won’t let cynicism (mine, or anyone else’s) get in the way of people trying to make a difference.

I will say that it is striking and an excellent development that people in academia, and as far removed from the everyday as particle physics, have at least recognised (this time around) that the issue is connected to them, recognized that “business as usual” is part of the problem. It’s usually easy for them to just ignore the concerns, since there are so few black people around in the corridors of academia -and especially in my field- that there’s usually nothing or nobody to remind them to stop and think about it. But of course, it’s not an accident that so few of their colleagues are black – it’s connected to the very same issue. So, great, something’s getting through, and several people are showing that they care – enough to stop what they’re doing, if just for a day, and not do “business as usual”. I respect that, and respect the people organizing this.

So have a look, and make up your own mind how/if you want to participate. Consider signing up at the Particles for Justice google page to show your support, and good luck to you.

Good luck to us all.



(Clickable montage of some recent posts on my instagram account that might interest you. See also the twitter and Facebook accounts. Links in sidebar.)

Network Improvements

The desire to have glitch-free online teaching and business meetings at home has driven me to do some infrastructure improvements I should have done years ago: extending the Ethernet backbone of the home network. Connecting the jacks (ethernet connectors) is a tad fiddly (but trivial), but the results are worthwhile!

In particular, it is far better (than being connected to WiFi) to have the computer connected via ethernet (had to get the appropriate dongle for my mac) when teaching via Zoom. It gives a more robust setup than you can get WiFi (unless you’re right on top of one of your WiFi transponders). Since I’ve switched to ethernet for such sessions I’ve never had even the hint of a loss of quality in my zoom session, which is important when trying to focus on the teaching subject matter, and not technology issues. I even did a radio/podcast interview the other day (online), reasonably confident that the quality was strong throughout.

There’s an ethernet connected repeater station far from the main base station, so that when it now broadcasts the network wirelessly, I there is stronger network coverage all over the house than when it was just connected over WiFi. Should have done this years ago.


Online Teaching Methods

Sharing my live virtual chalkboard while online teaching using Zoom.

It is an interesting time for all of us right now, whatever our walk of life. For those of us who make our living by standing up in front of people and talking and/or leading discussion (as is the case for teachers, lecturers, and professors of various sorts), there has been a lot of rapid learning of new techniques and workflows as we scramble to keep doing that while also not gathering in groups in classrooms and seminar rooms. I started thinking about this last week (the week of 2nd March), prompted by colleagues in the physics department here at USC, and then tested it out last Friday (6th) live with students from my general relativity class (22 students). But they were in the room so that we could iron out any issues, and get a feel for what worked best. Since then, I gave an online research seminar to the combined Harvard/MIT/USC theoretical physics groups on Wednesday (cancelling my original trip to fly to the East Coast to give it in person), and that worked pretty well.

But the big test was this morning. Giving a two hour lecture to my General Relativity class where we were really not all in the same room, but scattered over the campus and city (and maybe beyond), while being able to maintain a live play-by-play working environment on the board, as opposed to just showing slides. Showing slides (by doing screen-sharing) is great, but for the kind of physics techniques I’m teaching, you need to be able to show how to calculate, and bring the material to life – the old “chalk and talk” that people in other fields tend to frown upon, but which is so essential to learning how to actually *think* and navigate the language of physics, which is in large part the diagrams and equations. This is the big challenge lots of people are worried about with regards going online – how do I do that? (Besides, making a full set of slides for every single lecture you might want to do For the next month or more seems to me like a mammoth task – I’d not want to do that.)

So I’ve arrived at a system that works for me, and I thought I’d share it with those of you who might not yet have found your own solution. Many of the things I will say may well be specific to me and my institution (USC) at some level of detail, but aspects of it will generalize to other situations. Adapt as applies to you.

Do share the link to this page with others if you wish to – I may well update it from time to time with more information.

Here goes:

Click to continue reading this post

Talk Prep

snapshot of pencil and paper with scribblings and sketches in boxesHow do I prepare my research talks? I usually just sit down with a pencil, some paper and a cup of something warm, and I just draw/map out the story. Each box is a beat of the narrative, and ends up corresponding to one or two slides (if I’m doing slides). Then I’m more or less done.

(The facility of this old school approach is that drawing it out keeps it visual, less heavy with equations. Too many (if any) slides or long periods laden with equations (at least in physics) just aren’t so great. Also, it allows me to move these thumbnails/pages/sketches around if I need to, to sculpt the narrative. I can sit back and see if it’s all there at the end.)

(For this Harvard/MIT seminar, scheduled for Wednesday, I don’t yet know if I am going to get to give it. Wisdom about travel and gatherings is a bit uncertain right now, and things are changing as I type. Decisions on Monday. Update:- we changed it to a remote talk.)



When looking for an excuse to have some custard, simply whip up an upside down cake built on a bit of fruit, spices, and whatnot you might have (here: apples cooked in butter, basking on caramel, with toasted walnuts, cinnamon…etc).