Thoughts on Doing Science Remotely

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.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Doing Science Remotely

  1. Andrew Oh-Willeke

    “Remote seminars let us bring in speakers from all over the world (time zones permitting).”

    Ha! Both of my kids are home from college doing the remote learning thing for the remainder of the Spring semester, multiple times zones away from their professors. One of those institutions has recognized those time differences so students in the West don’t have to get up for glasses at crazy early hours. The other is more parochial and insists on business as usual on Eastern Time despite having students in classes as far afield as Hawaii and Taiwan. The kids are stuck at home anyway with nothing else fixed on their schedules and no place they can go, so they can adapt, but it can get awkward. (I am currently doing most of my work remotely right now, but almost entirely with people in the same time zone, which is much easier.)

    “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.”

    I teach nationally and internationally broadcast continuing legal education programs which are recorded in advance in a television studio, followed by a conference call on the day that they are broadcast to allow students to ask live questions. It is much for difficult and less rewarding than delivering the same presentation to a live audience. There are a couple of things that you can do to improve it. One is to do what TV comedies do and present the talk to a live or actively engaged on Zoom audience that is small enough to read and use them as a proxy for your entire much larger audience. The other thing that you can do is to have panel presentations rather than solo lectures. This doesn’t entirely solve the lack of feedback from the audience issue, but back and forth discussion between two or three presenters that regularly interrupts lecturing is much for tolerable for the audience and the presenters alike than solo monologue lecturing for all but the most brilliant, TED talk quality presenters (and TED talks usually do the presentation to a representative partial live audience thing anyway).

    At CU-Boulder and other universities with very large and medium sized intro and intermediate classes, another tool I’ve seen is to have “clickers” for each student (that could be adopted to your online interface) to solicit input on a regular basis from the audience during a talk with some small portion of a grade assigned to participating by using the clicker during a class at the appropriate times. Often presenters will, for example, put up a power point slide with two to five options to choose from that aren’t really right or wrong test questions so much as feedback that would be helpful to have in real time. For example, one of your slides might ask “How much experience do you have using logarithmic polynomial functions to calculate amplitudes?” and offer several degrees of familiarity, so that you can tailor your presentation to what the audience knows (in my classes on tax law, for example, I often ask when I’m in real life “how many of your are accountants?”, ‘how many of you practice in a non-legal corporation”, “how many are in law offices”, “how many of you are retired or semi-retired”), or you could ask, “How many of you would like me to break down how I got from equations (3) to equation (4)?” and people can click “yes” or “no.” This also provides a subtle way to encourage the audience to say engaged and pay attention rather than merely thinking they are paying attention when they actually aren’t really getting what you are trying to say.

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    1. 4gravitons Post author

      While literal studio audiences are impossible right now, you’re right that there ought to be some way to replicate it. We tend to leave at least the organizer’s camera on, so there’s some feedback, but not a ton. You bringing up clickers raises a more general point, which is that “asking the audience a question” is in general pretty uncommon in scientific talks. I suspect it feels a little demeaning, a bit too much like you’re teaching a class. That said, “customization” questions like the one you suggest might work better.

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