This evening, the American Physical Society suddenly cancelled its largest annual conference, the March Meeting, the day before it was to start. I’m one of the 10,000 physicists who will now not be spending the coming week in Denver.
The cancellation is due to fears of the coronavirus. Some would say the caution is warranted; some that it’s an overreaction. Though I lean towards the latter view, I’m struck by how ad-hoc all the discussion of coronavirus impacts is. How do we decide whether to cease travel, cancel meetings, lock ourselves in a closet, or go about normal activities? I wonder, given that we can model disease spread and human travel patterns well, whether we can establish ahead of time some transparent set of criteria for what epidemic characteristics warrant what response, especially when responses always come with a cost. Perhaps this is too much to ask for, but perhaps the present events will spur scientists and policymakers to better delineate, or better communicate, how we should make decisions.
The actual point of this post, however, is to wonder whether there’s anything of the cancelled meeting to salvage. Could we have virtual interactions, or share the talks we would have given? I am chair of a session on the Physics of Microbiomes and Bacterial Communities, and I sent the following email to the people who would have presented at it. I’m posting it in case others find it useful in organizing their own responses — feel free to use any of this!
Dear scheduled speakers for APS March Meeting session F23 (Physics of Microbiomes and Bacterial Communities), and a few others,
I was looking forward to the meeting, and our session in particular seems full of fascinating topics. I don’t know if APS will issue any statement about possible virtual meetings or presentations, but rather than wait I thought I’d query you all to see if there’s any interest in:
(1) Recording ourselves giving our talks and posting them online (YouTube, probably), or (2) Arranging some sort of virtual session (Skype or Zoom, probably).
Some thoughts and complications:
Logistics: #1 would be easy, and each of us would be responsible for posting our own talk. I could make a web page that lists all the talk links, or encourage APS to set up something like that. I don’t know how to set up #2, but I’m happy to look into it — I think I can set up a session with “Skype for Business” that would be open to anyone.
Audience: #1 would exist “forever” to everyone, and we can encourage people to watch in addition to watching ourselves. Also, we can all pester APS to host such videos, or links to them. For #2, it’s hard to imagine many people other than us taking the time specifically to log in, given that they’ll now be doing other things this week. Moreover, I think #2 is worth doing only if all, or nearly all, of us agree to participate, trying to recreate something like a conference interaction. I also want to stress that it’s completely acceptable to find this unappealing and not want to participate! I’ve been at virtual meetings and I definitely feel that it’s not nearly as pleasant as face-to-face interaction. We can all be very honest about whether any of these options sounds worthwhile or not.
All your thoughts are welcome. I especially encourage students and postdocs to comment, since presentation opportunities are probably most important for them.
I expect that others are working on similar ideas. Maybe we’ll have a virtual meeting while huddled under blankets eating canned beans.
The beginning of an illustration of the CsgG channel protein, mostly traced; unfinished.
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy, February 29, 2020