Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Importance of Networking

People skip conferences because of the coronavirus or for global warming or just because conferences are too expensive and time consuming. I'm certainly no fan of the current conference structure but I would never want to virtualize all of them. Even if we could completely recreate the conference experience in virtual reality, people would not hang out in the halls without the commitment of having made the physical trip. I made this point in a tweet with a depressing response.

I don't disagree with anything Mahdi says except for the "crucial importance". Great ideas come from chance encounters and random conversations. Many of my research papers would never have happened if not for a conversation had at a conference or on the plane or train rides that took me there. Harken Gilles Brassard's origin story of quantum cryptography.
One fine afternoon in late October 1979, I was swimming at the beach of a posh hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Imagine my surprise when this complete stranger swims up to me and starts telling me, without apparent provocation on my part, about Wiesner’s quantum banknotes! This was probably the most bizarre, and certainly the most magical, moment in my professional life6. Within hours, we had found ways to mesh Wiesner’s coding scheme with some of the then-new concepts of public-key cryptography.... The ideas that Bennett and I tossed around on the beach that day resulted in the first paper ever published on quantum cryptography, indeed the paper in which the term “Quantum Cryptography” was coined. 
And Footnote 6 read as follows.
At the risk of taking some of the magic away, I must confess that it was not by accident that Bennett and I were swimming at the same beach in Puerto Rico. We were both there for the 20th Annual IEEE Symposium on the Foundations of Computer Science. Bennett approached me because I was scheduled to give a talk on relativized cryptography on the last day of the Symposium and he thought I might be interested in Wiesner’s ideas. By an amazing coincidence, on my way to San Juan, I had read Martin Gardner’s account of Bennett’s report on Chaitin’s Omega, which had just appeared in the November 1979 “Mathematical Games” column of Scientific American—so, I knew the name but I could not recognize Bennett in that swimmer because I did not know what he looked like.
After we see a slate of conferences held virtually due to the virus, networking may indeed become a thing of the past. But we'll never know the research not done because of people who never connected.


  1. Interesting points. But your post seems a bit anecdotal to me. I don't see any sound or rational reasoning. For instance, you write:

    Even if we could completely recreate the conference experience in virtual reality, people would not hang out in the halls without the commitment of having made the physical trip.

    Why is that true? I think the opposite. If conferences become virtual *more* people would hang out in the halls, and *more* people would actually participate in them, and *more* people would actually write papers and do research, and *more* people would get grants, and more people from diverse geographical places would be able to participate in *more* confrences.

    Yes, for some people physical presence is probably essential. But for *some other* people it is not. There is no reason to think that the former group is larger or capable of doing better science.

    I have nothing against physical conferences, except them being too time consuming to travel to, and too expensive (of course, health and environmental issues are also related).

  2. We really should do what Math does: REGIONAL conferences.
    An AMS conference on the east coast is attended mostly by
    people on the east coast. These are not prestige conferences so
    there is no reason for someone from California to bother going to a regonal conferene in NY.

  3. In today's world, wouldn't Bennett just email Harken, which would lead to them talking on Skype, and end up writing the same paper?

  4. Reading the news that the United States banned flights from Europe, virtualizing science conferences seems to be the only reasonal solution. I blogged about this yesterday, we had the same considerations.

  5. Nice post. I like the recurring 'oceanic freedom' theme bit.

    Sadly, I don't think that generation Z nor Alpha, generations
    that have largely experienced and been 'impregnated' by
    the 'i-message' communication style, can either fully relate nor
    harness the (potential) advantages that come via in person interactions. It's a different shtick altogether.

  6. "Great ideas come from chance encounters and random conversations." Exactly. Couldn't agree more. And this will be very hard to recreate in a virtual environment. Sure, you can always contact someone whose work you find interesting, but how do you randomly over lunch bump into someone whose work you didn't even know existed, and who was anyway doing stuff seemingly completely unrelated to what you are doing, until you struck up a conversation and realized some totally unexpected connections.