Record attendance for Virtual Strings 2020 conference

30 July 2020 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Flickr. Read time 9 min.
Much of the discussion at the Virtual Strings 2020 conference focused on new understandings of black holes.
Much of the discussion at the Virtual Strings 2020 conference focused on new understandings of black holes.

The recent international Virtual Strings 2020 conference hosted by the University of Cape Town (UCT) marked three milestones that are portents of things to come for international research conferences and sustainability. As the chairperson of the organising committee, Professor Jeff Murugan, put it: “We’ve let the genie out of the bottle.”

This year the event, the 31st in the annual series, was hosted in the Southern Hemisphere for the first time – and in Africa, another first. It was held virtually, the risks of COVID-19 having put paid to international travel. COVID-19 is a game changer.

Six years ago, when South Africa was announced as the host for the event, the organising team had no inkling that their plans would be upturned by a pandemic.

“Basically, we had to reinvent this conference that [has] been around for 30 years,” said Murugan, who leads UCT’s String Theory Group in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics.

But there’s always that silver lining. The offshoot is that many more researchers participated from many more groups previously excluded by funds, gender, stage-of-life (young parents, for example) and juniority. By opening the conference on a virtual platform and making it free, participant numbers soared from 400 to 2 300.

This has important repercussions for a small field, said Murugan. South Africa’s string community includes the UCT group, one at the University of the Witwatersrand and individual researchers at other universities.

String theory

String theory is complex. Murugan calls it an edifice at the front lines of high-energy theoretical physics and mathematical physics. The Live Science website describes it as “an attempt to unite the two pillars of 20th century physics – quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity – with an overarching framework that can explain all of physical reality”.

The article adds, “It tries to do so by positing that particles are actually one-dimensional, string-like entities whose vibrations determine the particles’ properties, such as their mass and charge.” This counter-intuitive idea was first developed in the 1960s and ’70s, when strings were used to model data coming out of subatomic colliders in Europe, according to a website about string theory created by the University of Oxford and the British Royal Society.

“Strings provided an elegant mathematical way of describing the strong force, one of the four fundamental forces in the universe, which holds together atomic nuclei.”

Murugan added: “Today, we realise that string theory is really a far more diverse set of tools to understand a vast spectrum of things – from quantum chaos to cosmology.”

A big topic at this year’s conference was the idea of black hole information paradox. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) succinct description of a black hole describes it as “a place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light cannot get out. The gravity is so strong because matter has been squeezed into a tiny space. This can happen when a star is dying. Because no light can get out, people can’t see black holes”.

This understanding is changing. But more on that later.

Showcase local science

South Africa may have a small string theory community, but it’s a very active group, said Murugan. Having won the right in 2014 to host the conference in 2020, the South African organisers were determined to use the platform to bring hundreds of new guests to the country and showcase local science.

Most of the preparation was done by the time borders were closed and international travel halted. And they had raised some R2 million in pledges to fund attendance by young researchers, women researchers and researchers of colour.

“We initially proposed to the international advisory committee that we postpone it until late December in the event things would be okay. But as it became clearer that a vaccine wasn’t imminent, and that international travel would not happen in 2020, we said, ‘Let’s take the whole thing online.’ ”

As it turned out, they reinvented the meeting completely. A huge factor was that they would have participants from 20 different time zones at any one time.


“We’re still getting emails of support and thanks coming in, by all accounts it went beautifully.

“We opened the meeting and made it completely free (registration fees are typically around US$300) and didn’t put a closing date on it. We set up a live stream on YouTube. We recorded all of the lectures and we put them up on YouTube and shared them via the Strings 2020 website. We set up chat rooms and slack channels. And we ended up with about 2 300 delegates.

“We’re still getting emails of support and thanks coming in, by all accounts it went beautifully.”

Coincidentally UCT’s vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, issued a communiqué at the same time challenging the research community to use COVID-19 disruptions to advance sustainability and equality. Phakeng applauded the example set by the Virtual Strings 2020 conference. She also challenged the international community to follow suit.

“Some did lament the lack of interpersonal interaction,” said Murugan, “but overall we showed that we could take a 30-year-old tradition and transform it into a new, inclusive way of doing conferencing, and that it could be hosted from Africa just as well as it could be from anywhere else in the world. Even the time zone worked as South Africa is, zone-wise, more or less in the middle of everything. So, logistically, we’ve shown that it can be done, done well, and at a fraction of the cost.”

The organisers received a number of emails from students saying, “Thank you so much for organising this. I just never would have been able to attend the strings meeting before this.”

Murugan said the organising committee was also adamant that as one of the most prestigious conferences in the field it should be as diverse as possible.


“This year nearly 20% of our plenary speakers were women and nearly 40% were either women or people of colour.”

“There are exceptional scientists who just so happen to be women. And exceptional scientists who just so happen to be persons of colour ...this year nearly 20% of our plenary speakers were women and nearly 40% were either women or people of colour. In terms of overall participation, we had about 16% of overall participants being women, which is a good representation of the women in the field. It’s a good start, but we can do better.”

Black holes and information paradox

As for the science discussed, much of that was focused on black holes, and much progress has been made in understanding the information paradox.

“We’ve learned that there are correlations in the temperature of the black hole that allow us to reconstruct what falls into a black hole. A big theme of this year’s meeting was the resolution of [Stephen] Hawking’s information loss paradox,” Murugan said.

“But string theory has proven to be an important tool in solving many other problems. A lot of the technology that we use in string theory is portable to other areas of physics. An example from my own research is our co-discovery a few years ago of a beautiful set of relations, called dualities, between different quantum field theories that lend themselves to a deep understanding of the properties of a remarkable new class of materials called topological quantum matter.”

He added, “This is what we expect will replace silicon as the basis for future technology. So trying to understand the properties of these materials is vital. And the mathematical techniques from string theory are the same techniques that will go towards understanding the stability, electrical properties and possible uses of these new materials.”

Writing to a colleague in Canada after the conference, Murugan said: “I’m hoping that we have demonstrated a proof of principle that will change the way people conference and share information going forward. As Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton New Jersey, said in a post-conference email: ‘The toothpaste is out of the tube now and there’s no going back.’ If my only contribution to string theory was to bring the community together in this way, at this time, I think I am happy with it.”

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