In these times, I’m unusually lucky.
I’m a theoretical physicist. I don’t handle goods, or see customers. Other scientists need labs, or telescopes: I just need a computer and a pad of paper. As a postdoc, I don’t even teach. In the past, commenters have asked me why I don’t just work remotely. Why go to conferences, why even go to the office?
With COVID-19, we’re finding out.
First, the good: my colleagues at the Niels Bohr Institute have been hard at work keeping everyone connected. Our seminars have moved online, where we hold weekly Zoom seminars jointly with Iceland, Uppsala and Nordita. We have a “virtual coffee room”, a Zoom room that’s continuously open with “virtual coffee breaks” at 10 and 3:30 to encourage people to show up. We’re planning virtual colloquia, and even a virtual social night with Jackbox games.
Is it working? Partially.
The seminars are the strongest part. Remote seminars let us bring in speakers from all over the world (time zones permitting). They let one seminar serve the needs of several different institutes. Most of the basic things a seminar needs (slides, blackboards, ability to ask questions, ability to clap) are present on online platforms, particularly Zoom. And our seminar organizers had the bright idea to keep the Zoom room open after the talk, which allows the traditional “after seminar conversation with the speaker” for those who want it.
Still, the setup isn’t as good as it could be. If the audience turns off their cameras and mics, the speaker can feel like they’re giving a talk to an empty room. This isn’t just awkward, it makes the talk worse: speakers improve when they can “feel the room” and see what catches their audience’s interest. If the audience keeps their cameras or mics on instead, it takes a lot of bandwidth, and the speaker still can’t really feel the room. I don’t know if there’s a good solution here, but it’s worth working on.
The “virtual coffee room” is weaker. It was quite popular at first, but as time went on fewer and fewer people (myself included) showed up. In contrast, my wife’s friends at Waterloo do a daily cryptic crossword, and that seems to do quite well. What’s the difference? They have real crosswords, we don’t have real coffee.
I kid, but only a little. Coffee rooms and tea breaks work because of a core activity, a physical requirement that brings people together. We value them for their social role, but that role on its own isn’t enough to get us in the door. We need the excuse: the coffee, the tea, the cookies, the crossword. Without that shared structure, people just don’t show up.
Getting this kind of thing right is more important than it might seem. Social activities help us feel better, they help us feel less isolated. But more than that, they help us do science better.
That’s because science works, at least in part, through serendipity.
You might think of scientific collaboration as something we plan, and it can be sometimes. Sometimes we know exactly what we’re looking for: a precise calculation someone else can do, a question someone else can answer. Sometimes, though, we’re helped by chance. We have random conversations, different people in different situations, coffee breaks and conference dinners, and eventually someone brings up an idea we wouldn’t have thought of on our own.
Other times, chance helps by providing an excuse. I have a few questions rattling around in my head that I’d like to ask some of my field’s big-shots, but that don’t feel worth an email. I’ve been waiting to meet them at a conference instead. The advantage of those casual meetings is that they give an excuse for conversation: we have to talk about something, it might as well be my dumb question. Without that kind of causal contact, it feels a lot harder to broach low-stakes topics.
None of this is impossible to do remotely. But I think we need new technology (social or digital) to make it work well. Serendipity is easy to find in person, but social networks can imitate it. Log in to facebook or tumblr looking for your favorite content, and you face a pile of ongoing conversations. Looking through them, you naturally “run into” whatever your friends are talking about. I could see something similar for academia. Take something like the list of new papers on arXiv, then run a list of ongoing conversations next to it. When we check the arXiv each morning, we could see what our colleagues were talking about, and join in if we see something interesting. It would be a way to stay connected that would keep us together more, giving more incentive and structure beyond simple loneliness, and lead to the kind of accidental meetings that science craves. You could even graft conferences on to that system, talks in the middle with conversation threads on the side.
None of us know how long the pandemic will last, or how long we’ll be asked to work from home. But even afterwards, it’s worth thinking about the kind of infrastructure science needs to work remotely. Some ideas may still be valuable after all this is over.