Physics in the pandemic: ‘My job is not amenable to working from home’ – Physics World


Hannah Williams is a postdoctoral researcher in experimental atomic physics at the Institut d’Optique, just south of Paris, France.

This post is part of a series on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the personal and professional lives of physicists around the world. If you’d like to share your own perspective, please contact us at 

I moved to France with my partner just over five months ago, and we now live in a small flat in the centre of Paris. As an experimentalist, I usually spend most of my day in the lab, often coaxing the lasers into behaving. In my experiment, we trap individual atoms in an arbitrarily arrangeable array of optical tweezer traps. We can then excite these atoms into a Rydberg state and use the set-up to simulate quantum systems. There is no such thing as a normal day for me, as my tasks are dictated by the current state of the experiment. Over the course of a week I could be working on a laser, taking data, analysing and writing up results, or fixing machinery or other pieces of equipment. This hands-on variety is my favourite part of being a researcher.

Empty shops, empty lab

As with most people, the pandemic has had a huge impact on my daily life. The French government closed universities and research labs on 13 March, and since then it has introduced strict lockdown rules. My partner and I are expected to stay in our apartment, only leaving for food, medicine or exercise. We must remain within 1 km of our home, return within an hour and carry a note indicating the time we went out and the reason why. From my brief excursions it seems like people are adhering to these rules; the streets are empty and the shops and hotels have been boarded up, although the boulangeries remain open to provide the city with baguettes and croissants. This lockdown was initially set to last for 14 days, but it is likely to be extended.

The vast majority of my job is not amenable to working from home. Sadly, the experiment consists of many physical buttons and switches that need pressing in order to run, and it cannot be controlled remotely. Therefore, I have had to find new tasks that can be completed from the (relative) comfort of my dining table. I am currently focusing on building and running simulations of the experiment. This is a good task for me as I have wanted to do this for a while, but I find it too easy to get distracted by the goings-on in the lab.

Three mornings a week the lab has a group Skype where we discuss our work, catch up and check in on one another. Last week I also took part in a workshop that had been moved online. I had not registered for the “real-life” version, and had it not been for the global lockdown I would not have known about it. I also might never have got to experience being totally confused by a theory talk while sitting on my sofa, in my joggers.

A photo of the Pantheon, a large Classical building with columns and a dome with the French tricolour on top and an empty plaza out front

Blue skies above, anxiety below

Staying inside my flat has not been easy, as I like being outside and walking. I usually walk for over an hour each day just to get to my lab, but my Fitbit informs me that last week I walked 50 km less than normal. To make matters worse, the weather in Paris is suddenly beautiful, with blue skies every day and temperatures warm enough to eat ice-cream in the street. However, I understand the importance of staying inside and I know that I am in a position of privilege; I am healthy, I’m still getting paid, I live with my partner and French supermarkets are being kept very well stocked. I am enjoying the extra time I have because I’m no longer commuting; I am cooking more, doing yoga (almost) every day and running three or four times a week. I am also talking more to friends and families via group Skypes and virtual pub meet-ups in which we try to avoid talking about the virus, but inevitably circle back round to it.

I miss the lab, and I miss the work I was doing. After five months in my role, I finally really understood the experiment and was very excited about the data we were taking. Some days are harder than others and remaining productive can be a challenge. I feel anxious about the health of family and friends and down about the state of the world. It is difficult to escape from the barrage of statistics and endless lists of “How to be productive at home”, “Best workouts to do in your living room” and “Top TV shows to binge watch” – none of which make for interesting or uplifting reading. This is a time of uncertainty and disruption which many of us have never faced before, with no clear end in sight. So when I feel anxiety or stress, I take a break. I don’t try to make myself work. I do something else – and above all, I get off the Internet.

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