Friday, January 18, 2008


The online availability of recorded seminars is to me one of the most interesting recent technological developments that influence scientific research. It allows the researchers at smaller institutions to benefit from the places with better infrastructure, it allows the interested colleagues to get an introduction into somebodies research program without sorting through dozens of papers, it gives the public the opportunity to look into our seminar rooms, and it gives me the opportunity to skip the morning talks without too much of a bad conscience.

The recording and archiving of seminars though is sometimes a bit of a mess, and depends very much on the institution. PIRSA, the Perimeter Institute Recorded Seminar Archive, aims to provide an interface that makes recorded seminars easily searchable, and allows to refer to them by providing an unique and permanent PIRSA number, much like the arXiv.

The PIRSA websites have just been launched, you can have a look yourself at

The archive presently contains PI’s scientific seminar series (including colloquia), summer schools, courses, workshops, conferences, public lectures, and special events - in total that currently amounts to about 1700. The recording is done using a combination of A/V equipment and Mediasite, which captures both a video feed of the speaker and a VGA feed of any supporting materials – such as presentation slides, transparencies, or black board notes and figures.

Almost like being there. Except that nobody notices when you fall asleep.

The driving force behind PIRSA is PI faculty member Lucien Hardy, who explains
    “Seminars have always played an important role in propagating knowledge. However, it has been the written rather than the spoken word by which scientific knowledge has been recorded, archived, and passed down. These words were written on paper and archived in libraries.

    Now technology has progressed further to the point that we can archive seminars. We have modeled PIRSA on It is not so much a YouTube for science as it is a video arXiv for seminars. It is designed to be a useful resource for researchers rather than an entertainment channel. A permanent archive of seminars allows researchers to watch presentations they were unable to attend, to revisit them many years after they were recorded, and to cite them in their own work just as they would cite a regular article”

Steve Bradwell from our IT department who has been in charge of the software development adds
    “We believe PIRSA’s success as a global, web based physics archive lies in both the quality of content provided and the accuracy and consistency of the supporting information and media formats. It’s more than just feature rich services, people want consistency and cross platform support. PIRSA offers that.”

The ambitious long term goal would be to establish a general recording and archiving standard that other academical institutions could also use.


  1. It's great to see the evolution of this. Having recorded a number of conferences myself, I know how little infrastructure there is for this sort of thing, and I can imagine how much work it is maintaining an archive like this.

    Pity the video is only available in WMV, but it's nice to see mp3 and pdf versions.

    Next they should add a podcast feed! :)

  2. Dear Bee,

    thanks for the link and info update, and for collecting the comments by the guys who have realised this site!. The idea is very interesting, to have something like a video arxiv. And I see that in principle it will possible to add comment feeds to the videos, that's cool!

    Though I have to say I have to get used to the navigation trough the site... And I am wondering - if talks are recorded like this, and become citable and all that, have there not been worries that the informal character of seminars may get lost? That speakers could shy away from saying things that otherwise they would have said? Such a loss of informality would be quite a pity, in my opinion. Do you know some experience about this point from the 1000+ talks recorded so far?

    Hi rillian:

    It seems that feeds are available - have a look at

    Best, Stefan

  3. Dear Stefan,

    Interesting you mention that, because I made the same remark when I heard about it. One thing is that (usually) the speakers get asked before they are recorded (some actually say no). However, in practice this doesn't always seem to happen. E.g. in both cases where I was recorded I was not asked whether I'd want to. (It is not completely obvious, since the audio recording also acts as a microphone). I've heard other institutions even ask the speaker to sign an authorization.

    I can imagine that in some instances a speaker would want a talk to be removed - either because he/she is particularly unhappy with it, or maybe just because the same talk is recorded a dozen times (most people don't change their talks all that often, and if you've heard them a couple of times you know all the jokes). Therefore, I am happy to see there is the option to ask a talk to be removed from the database, which is in my opinion a good feature. I mean, if that option were not there, it might cause more people to generally refuse every cough to be recorded to begin with.



  4. one of the other remarks I had was that I don't particularly like the logo. to me it looks like a roller-coaster.

  5. Last night and the night before I watched three seminars, the first two on time by Smolin, and a random one from Owen Maroney's talk on the foundations of quantum mechanics.

    They were wonderful talks.

    Since I've been out of academia for quite some time, I'd forgotten how easy to understand lectures can be. I'd gotten used to trying to figure out a subject by reading a terse paper on it, or listening to a 30 or even 10 minute lecture at a conference.

    What's different with the lectures I've listened to is that they have a lot more time to cover the subject, they're not speaking just to researchers in the field who already know it inside and out.

    What I need now is something to do with my computer while I'm waiting through the boring parts.

  6. Hi Bee,

    From time to time I have watched a few of the online lectures. I’m sorry to report I have not checked out any that you have presented as I wasn’t aware you had. The ones that I watched primarily dealt with quantum foundations and the different interpretations. This is something that I have a keen interest in, although I realize that some physicists believe the whole subject is a waste of time. The one complaint I have is that the volume level of the recordings tend to be very inconsistent with many of them being very low. So low that with my laptop volume cranked as high a possible and the volume setting on the screen at max, many times it is still difficult to hear. I will admit that my hearing is not as good as many and yet I would bet others have had the same experience. Strangely though the ones I’m not interested in have the volume booming:-)

    Now that I’ve dispensed with the sour grapes, I must say what a wonderful resource this is. There is no substitute for the actual live presentation of such material but this comes as close as it gets. I recall getting the Feynman Lectures on tape and what a difference that was compared to the lecture books I had purchased years earlier. For weeks I listened to them while driving back and forth from work. Many I listened to several times. It really was a great aid to increase my meager comprehension of the presented material. It also served as wonderful way to relieve the stress of the rush hour. I know that this material is mainly aimed at the professional, yet I can tell you it can also be enjoyed and benefit keen novices. It is not for the Discovery channel however, unless the presenters pretend to show how to construct a motorcycle while making a fool out of themselves:-)



  7. Since Garrett Lisi gave a talk on his E8 model last year at Perimeter, I searched PIRSA for talks by him, and the result was:

    "... Displaying all lectures given by: Anthony Garrett Lisi
    Sorry, there are no seminars to display for this speaker. ...".

    Will his Perimeter talk be put up on PIRSA sometime ?

    Tony Smith

  8. This is a wonderful resource that is being made available.

    This seems to be the evolution of the internet as it is unfolding. Stefan gave some food for thought for such "blog video postings" to be open up after such a introduction to comments.

    Youtube clips have already made their way into such an idea, so why then would this not continue?

    I was rereading Lee Smolin's book again today on Craftsman and Seers.

    While of course one can hope to excel to the height of our scientists and their knowledge, the convenience of having the time and motivation, who knows, maybe somebody out there can be ignited into helping science progress along a new route?

    Not me for sure. It's the idea of making this information available to probabilities eh? :) Who knows what circuitous routes information can travel?

  9. Stefan: Thanks! I hadn't read the help (obviously). No doubt they'll continue to improve it.

  10. From what I remember, PIRSA has been up and running for quite a while now. I remember using it to re-watch two talks that I slept through (as in, didn't get out of bed in time---not actually slept during!) from the Quantum Foundations Summer School. While the user interface has certainly been updated, is there a difference besides that in the recent launch?

  11. Hi Domenic:

    I think there is an option to download the files onto the hard disk which was added. The point to me is not so much that the PI lectures are on there, but that the system is designed such that it can be used by other institutions as well, with the hope to eventually collect the seminar recordings that are presently spread on a multitude of websites in various different formats, and to provide a clear referencing system similarly to the arXiv. This is also the reason why it is a separate site in contrast to be embedded in the PI website.

    Something else that is new here at PI is that we now have camera equipment in the small seminar room, that brings me to Tony's question....

    Hi Tony:

    Garrett's talk was not recorded because it took place in the small seminar room which didn't have camera equipment at this time.




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