In his column in “Le Monde”, the mathematician Etienne Ghys notes that the confinement has brutally accelerated, with the imposed teleconferences, a process of reduction of physical interactions between researchers.
Carte blanche. The months of confinement that we have just experienced will probably permanently change the working methods of scientific researchers, including those with no connection to biology. Mathematicians, for example, do not use experimental equipment, and their physical presence in the laboratory may not seem indispensable. They have been among those for whom teleworking has been the easiest to set up.
The Researchseminars.org site lists 739 mathematics presentations that can be participated in via the Internet, being able to interact live with the lecturers on all subjects, at any time of the day or night, taking advantage of the time difference. This opens up unprecedented possibilities for communication between researchers and abruptly accelerates a slowly evolving process. The consequences that this will have on the social life of the mathematical community are unknown.
Mathematicians usually work alone, but of course they need to exchange ideas with other colleagues. For a century, a major communication tool has been the laboratory seminar. These are meetings, usually weekly, during which a new result is presented to the members of a team. In France, the first seminar was created in 1920 by Jacques Hadamard, a professor at the Collège de France. At the beginning of the academic year, he would invite a few mathematicians to his home and distribute recently published research articles to be studied. He would then draw up an annual program.
The seminar, a Sunday mass
At the time, the Hadamard seminar was unique in France, but today, all the teams in the mathematics laboratories are organized around their seminars. Their role goes far beyond the transmission of knowledge: they are social events that unite the teams. They are sometimes compared to Sunday mass. Sometimes one attends out of obligation, or to see friends and colleagues. It must be said that it is not always easy to follow a mathematics conference and that one is often lost, sometimes from the very first sentences.
Over the last twenty years or so, the Internet has, of course, made these modes of communication evolve. First of all, all scientific journals are now available online. In the past, mathematicians used to go to their laboratories to be close to their library, which was their real working tool. This is still the case, but libraries have become virtual. E-mail, which is abused, has replaced the letters that were carefully written by thinking about each word. It’s not uncommon to see researchers, with a helmet on their head, collaborating via Skype with someone on the other side of the world, and forgetting to go and chat with their close colleagues in the common room of the laboratory.
This gradual evolution has great advantages, of course, but also obvious disadvantages. The weekly “face-to-face” seminars remained, however, and made it possible to preserve the human link within the teams. The pandemic suddenly accelerated this evolution: the seminars had to meet by videoconference, and participants no longer had to be members of the same laboratory. Lists of “global web-seminars” emerged, offering impressive amounts of live conferencing, each more appealing than the last. This evolution is probably irreversible. Does it herald the end of the mathematics laboratory concept? That would be a pity.
This summer I’m going to take part in a conference in Russia… without leaving home.