Physicists were shocked over the weekend when the American Physical Society (APS) abruptly canceled its 2020 March Meeting in Denver out of an abundance of caution over COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. As the world’s largest gathering of physicists, the March Meeting is important for networking, community building, and information sharing. The cancellation therefore left many wondering: Could the conference go forward remotely?
Virtual conferencing has been proposed for years to address issues other than the spread of pathogens. With climate change increasingly a concern, scientists can significantly reduce their carbon footprints by flying to fewer conferences. Remote conference attendance also makes participation easier for people with disabilities, caregivers, younger scientists with limited funding, and researchers in the developing world.
Critics rightly point out that bringing scientific sessions online doesn’t re-create the entire conference experience, particularly the informal social aspects. However, as virtual environments improve, proponents of remote conferencing hope that the gap will shrink. And, as the community is now learning firsthand, many physicists prefer a virtual conference to none at all.
The Division of Soft Matter (DSOFT) has led the largest coordinated effort to bring the March Meeting to the Web, organizing 31 sessions over four days, and several other APS divisions have followed its lead. The DSOFT endeavor is spearheaded by Karen Daniels, the division’s vice chair and a professor of physics at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Within two hours of APS’s 10:00pm EST cancellation email on 29 February, discussions about virtual sessions from DSOFT had begun, and a sign-up sheet went live the next morning.
Hi all @ApsDsoft folks — plans are afoot to host virtual sessions over the course of the week, with organization happening tomorrow (after a good night’s sleep). If you’re interested in HOSTING a session, email/DM me. If you’re interested in TALKING, please stand by …
— Karen Daniels (@karenedaniels) March 1, 2020
DSOFT’s virtual sessions are organized through a Google spreadsheet. Each session leader adds a sheet with the session topic, and speakers can sign up by adding their name, talk title, and a link to their abstract on the March Meeting website. By the evening of 2 March, speakers had signed up for nearly all the sessions, and some had all 15 slots filled.
Session leaders have overwhelmingly chosen Zoom for their virtual conference rooms, with BlueJeans the other popular choice. Zoom allows up to 100 users to participate in a group videoconference call. All participants—the session chair, speakers, and audience members—join the call, and the speakers share their screens to display their slides while they present. Audience members can submit questions through a chat function.
Although a few people have experienced technical difficulties with the spreadsheet and when trying to join sessions, some of the talks on 3 March had more than 60 participants, and reactions have been generally positive, Daniels says. “The already existing network of DSOFT folks on social media, from junior to senior, was the most important feature,” Daniels says about the undertaking. “This was truly grassroots.” She credits the effort’s success so far to constant feedback and widespread community contributions.
The Division of Biological Physics quickly followed DSOFT with its own virtual sessions. A similar spreadsheet hosted by Phil Nelson, professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania and the division’s chair-elect, had sign-up lists for 25 virtual sessions as of the morning of 4 March. The Division of Polymer Physics has since followed suit.
The earliest remote talks were held on the afternoon of 2 March, when the Division of Fluid Dynamics brought its invited session “Transitional Flows & Chaotic Dynamics: In Honor of Bruno Eckhardt” to participants through Zoom. Georgia Tech physics professor Predrag Cvitanović led the effort to bring the session online. The first talk, “What do we learn from the finite lifetime of turbulence?” by Nigel Goldenfeld from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, had 34 attendees. It proceeded on time and without technical difficulties. A recording of the talk has been viewed more than 350 times on YouTube.
Goldenfeld acknowledges that he had to do some things differently to present remotely. “I tend to look at the audience a lot and gauge their level of interest and involvement in real time. You can’t do that online,” he says. But he notes that the virtual format does not necessarily limit audience engagement, and he sees it as a sustainable vehicle for information sharing that is likely to expand. “I think this is something that we as a community ought to be thinking seriously about and not be afraid to try experiments,” he says.
Other independent efforts to bring the March Meeting online are ongoing. Speakers from other physics subfields are striking out on their own and sharing their talks through social media platforms, including Twitter and YouTube. The quantum computing company Q-CTRL, which had planned to be an exhibitor and presenter at the March Meeting, brought a Virtual March Meeting platform online shortly after APS’s cancellation announcement. The website, which is also sponsored by three other computing companies and the journal Matter, went live on 2 March. The platform allows users to upload slides or a video recording of their talks and facilitates discussion through comments below each video. Prerecorded talks avoid one of the pitfalls of live sessions: Schedules can’t accommodate participants located in remote time zones. As of the morning of 4 March, participants had uploaded 19 presentations.
The APS website reminds participants that they also have the option to upload their posters and recorded talks virtually through the society’s platform. Presenters can attach presentations, YouTube links, posters, and other resources to their abstracts on the March Meeting website. In the coming days, presenters will receive personalized emails from APS with instructions for uploading presentations and YouTube links for other participants to view at their convenience.