In late October, I attended the tenth annual Upstate Number Theory Conference at Union College in Schenectady, NY. By “attended” here, I actually mean attended, in the physical sense of the term! My physical body was relocated (by plane) to Upstate New York, I sat in a room listening to people talk about math in 20-60 minute increments (and took a turn myself), and afterwards we socialized over food and drink. From my perspective at least, it went quite smoothly, for which I am grateful to the conference organizers. Judging from the fact that literally each speaker (trust me, I kept track) began their talk with a variation of “it’s so great to be here in person speaking with all of you,” I think most attendees felt the same.
With the post-social-interaction high long gone, I have had some time to reflect on the in person experience as compared to the online conferences which have proliferated since the spring of 2020. After all, online conferences have talks, career and networking events, and even social gatherings, albeit virtual ones. What is it that sets the in person setting apart, and what place do both types of conferences have in mathematics moving forward?
The biggest selling point of meeting in person was the ease of starting informal, impromptu discussion with other attendees. At one point, I found myself in a group of four graduate students who were all involved with their respective school’s directed reading program (DRP), so I took the opportunity to pick their brains about how they run their programs. Questions at the end of the 20 minute talks extended into conversations during the break, or over lunch. After dinner on Saturday night, two of the panelists for the career discussion answered more of our questions over refreshments at a nearby beer garden. Sure, I also did my fair share of awkwardly standing in a corner with my coffee, but the number of meaningful and positive social interactions I had in one weekend likely outnumbered those I’d had in the past year and a half at online conferences.
I also had an easier time tuning in to the in person talks. There are more distractions at home, and when the Zoom fatigue kicks in, my temptation to turn off the camera and skip the rest of the session is awfully strong. In person, when I lost the thread of a talk, I didn’t have many options besides refocusing or doodling in my notebook about a math problem I was stuck on. Even in the latter case, I would sneak a little work in and have no trouble paying attention during the next talk.
Still, the online setting itself does have certain advantages over meeting in person, as noted by Kate Thompson in her recent blog post. She cites not having to travel, the lack of reimbursement paperwork, and avoiding when that “group way too large to split a check starts wandering in a zombie-like state to lunch…” as reasons she prefers virtual events, and all of these became reality for me on the trip to Schenectady. The main headache was definitely booking my travel, since I used a refunded ticket from April 2020 — an incredibly inconvenient process, thanks to my institution’s travel agency and their opaque policies. But even lunch proved to be perilous, as Kate warned, when eight of us chose to dine at a local Vietnamese and Thai restaurant, Pho Queen, on Saturday afternoon. Due to a combination of optimistic planning and slower than expected service, we ended up arriving five minutes late to the post-lunch plenary talk, our stomachs still full of hastily slurped (yet delicious) soup.
These individual inconveniences seem a small price to pay for the privilege of meeting in person, but it’s also worth considering the environmental impact of scores of mathematicians descending on single university by car or plane, when they could instead congregate on Zoom. This has been written about before on this very blog even before Covid-19. Viable virtual conferences and seminar series (like VaNTAGe for arithmetic geometry) predate the pandemic, in part with the goal of providing an alternative with minimal environmental impact.
Finally, the explosion of online events has brought new opportunities – both to speakers and attendees – through virtual seminars, conferences, and workshops that can be attended from anywhere in the world. At Emory, we hold learning seminars each semester, and last year we were able to open them up to a wider audience, including graduate students Zooming in from other continents! I was also afforded the opportunity to give talks and seminars that I otherwise may not have been able to attend, due to either a lack of funding opportunities or scheduling conflicts. In 2020 I attended more conferences than I had in any year prior, and I’m on track to surpass that total by the end of 2021.
So where does that leave us? Should we push en masse for a return to in person meetings? Or, was the warm atmosphere at this conference merely the result of the extroverts self-selecting in choosing to attend, and we’re all better off online?
I myself am eager to see in person events get back on the schedule moving forward. The social aspect of mathematics is part of what has drawn me in to this community, and I believe it is best enjoyed face-to-face. I am particularly looking forward to intensive workshops (like the Arizona Winter School) to be held in person again, as I haven’t experienced their unique immersive environment replicated online. Then again, virtual events have proven to be a viable way to share mathematics, with the potential to reach more people and minimize our environmental impacts, and I will continue to seek out quality Zoom conferences to attend. Ultimately, these settings do different things well for different people, and I suspect a blend of both is what we’ll see in the future.