Last week I met with research collaborators in Italy where they have been restricted to their homes for the past four weeks and need written permission to move more than 200 yards from the house; in Urbana-Champaign, IL, USA where they closed down the campus two weeks ago on about the same timescale as here in Liverpool; and in Taiwan where they are able to work on campus wearing masks but they are not delivering undergraduate lectures. Of course, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, all of these meetings happened electronically via a variety of virtual conferencing tools. At the weekend, I climbed the Welsh hill, Moel Famau, that we can see from the upper windows of our house. We climb it most weekends, but last weekend was different because I did it virtually by repeatedly climbing the stairs in our house so that I could abide by the Government’s directions to not visit the countryside. I had talked about it during our first weekend in lock-down and calculated how many repeats were equivalent to the climb from Cilcain to the summit. A report of a virtual ascent of Everest inspired me to go ahead with my own virtual expedition from the basement to the attic thirty-five times. The first stage was like the lower slopes of well-used mountain trail where rangers have installed wooden steps to protect the hillside because we have recently installed a new oak staircase to the basement. The middle stage was a gentler winding ascent with views of hills while the final stage was steep with awkward steps leading to a hidden summit. To my surprise, I got some of the same feelings of mental well-being and renewal induced by walking in real hills [see: ‘Gone walking‘ on April 19th, 2014 & ‘Take a walk on the wild side‘ on August 26th, 2015]. As I write this post, a Government minister is saying on the radio that we might not be allowed our daily hour outside for exercise, so my virtual expedition will likely be repeated next weekend.
Last week in Liverpool, we hosted a series of symposia for participants in a dual PhD programme involving the University of Liverpool and National Tsing Hua University, in Taiwan, that has been operating for nearly a decade. On the first day, we brought together about dozen staff from each university, who had not met before, and asked them to present overviews of their research and explore possible collaborations using as a theme: UN Sustainable Development Goal No.11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. The expertise of the group included biology, computer science, chemistry, economics, engineering, materials science and physics; so, we had wide-ranging discussions. On the second and third day, we connected a classroom on each campus using a video conferencing system and the two dozen PhD students in the dual programme presented updates on their research from whichever campus they are currently resident. Each student has a supervisor in each university and divides their time between the two universities exploiting the expertise and facilities in the two institutions.
The range of topics covered in the student presentations was probably even wider than on the first day; extending from deep neural networks, through nuclear reactor technology, battery design and three-dimensional cell culturing to policy impacts on households. One student spoke about the beauty of mathematical equations she is working on that describe the propagation of waves in lattice structures; while, another told us about his investigation of the causes of declining fertility rates across the world. Data from the UN DESA Population Division show that live births per woman in the Americas & Europe have already fallen below the 2.1 required to sustain the population, while it is projected to fall below this level in south-east Asia within the next five years and in the world by 2060. This made me think that perhaps the Gaia principle, proposed by James Lovelock, is operating and that human population is self-regulating as it interacts with constraints imposed by the Earth though perhaps not in a fashion originally envisaged.