Large groups of mathematicians from around the world have been meeting on the streaming platform Zoom to watch talks from experts in the field, thanks to the creativity of professors from the University of Bath and University of Mannheim.

The first worldwide online mathematics seminar of its kind took place on 26 March with participants watching two probability theorists discuss their latest research findings. The grassroots initiative was hailed a huge success by the two mathematicians who organised it, and brought together mathematicians from countries as far apart as India, Hungary and Brazil.

The One World Probability Seminar, set up in just four days by Professor Andreas Kyprianou from the University of Bath and Professor Leif Döring from Germany’s University of Mannheim, attracted a staggering 450 participants. According to Prof Kyprianou, a face-to-face seminar on probability usually attracts between two and 20 participants.

“We have talked about running virtual conferences for a long time because a seminar really doesn’t need to be a localised thing,” said Prof. Kyprianou. “Then Leif contacted me last week and said, ‘now is the time to reinvent the format’. This was on a Sunday. We opened a Zoom account and by Thursday, we were running the first event.”

He added: “We emailed 300 people around the world to let them know what was happening, and from here the message spread. The global community of probability theory, including postdocs and PhDs is, at a wild guess, around 2,000, and 450 of them turned up.”

Profs Döring and Kyprianou now plan to make Zoom seminars a weekly event, and the hope is that they will continue beyond the Covid-19 crisis. The streaming concept is attracting a lot of attention from known and respected probability theorists, said Prof. Kyprianou. “We have a long list of people willing to speak,” he said. “They have never had such a big audience.”

Prof Döring sees online seminars as the future, not just a stopgap measure during the coronavirus lockdown. “They are inclusive in a way that physical ones can never be,” he said. “Some universities – with small research or teaching-focused – run seminars less frequently than those with big research groups or healthy seminar budgets. We want to give everyone the same opportunity to access these events.”

He added: “The coronavirus is a crisis for society but it also gives us the chance to be creative. We now have two months or so to make online seminars big, and after that I believe they will outlive the global shutdown.”

A clear bonus of running online seminars is that attendance doesn’t require travelling. “We want to prove that you don’t need to fly people around the world to give a talk,” said Prof Döring. “This is important – we should all be aiming to lower our CO2 emissions.”

Both seminar organisers were delighted by the level of audience participation during last week’s event. While the seminar was running, there was an active chat going on between participants as they discussed its content and asked one another for clarification on technical details.

Five days after the probability seminar, another set of Bath mathematicians initiated a similar programme dedicated to the theme of partial differential equations (PDE) in collaboration with the University of Roma Sapienza. This One World PDE Seminar also attracted around 450 participants on its first broadcast and the organisers have scheduled a Zoom seminar for every fortnight between now and June. Another group from Maths will be streaming a One World seminar on ‘Mathematical Methods of Arbitrary Data Sources’ on April 20. A consortium of UK universities including Bath has also set up the Waves in One World seminar, which will launch shortly and it is understood that others are under discussion.

Image credit: Danie Morgan