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Discussion and solitude in the Theoretical Physics department

Theoreticians stuck at home connect with their global community and focus on their research

Many of Sir Isaac Newton's discoveries coincided with his stay in his home village during a plague. Will the current situation give rise to similar results?

Many of Sir Isaac Newton's discoveries coincided with his stay in his home village during a plague. Will the current situation give rise to similar results?

Scientists in the Theoretical Physics department are now conducting research from the safety of their homes. How does that shake up the professional life of the roughly seventy members of the department? One might think that the theoreticians were the best prepared to cope with lockdown, as isolation is an integral part of their research process. Gian Giudice, head of the department, gives his nuanced take on the matter: “One of the objectives of our department is to provide scientists with an environment that balances needs for solitude, where some of us find inspiration, and discussion and exchange, which others thrive in. Of course, this lockdown has tilted that balance towards solitude. The challenge is thus to recreate opportunities for interaction”.

Indeed, lockdown has temporarily put a stop to meetings between colleagues and seminars attended by the many visiting scientists who make the Theoretical Physics department a central hub for particle physics. Thankfully, the measures that have been implemented to counter isolation hold the potential to reinforce this hub role. Not only virtual seminars are being openly broadcast: now, so are informal meetings about specific areas of research, which were formerly accessible only to theoreticians who were physically present at CERN. The initiative brings the particle physics community closer together and will be extended after the end of the lockdown. Gian Giudice is pleased to see a consistently high attendance, which demonstrates the determination of his global community to maintain the tight bonds that make it thrive. Furthermore, virtual coffees, discussion groups and other virtual activities such as pub quizzes contribute to the feeling of togetherness within the department, despite social distancing.

Interestingly, this period may also have its benefits for research, in that it temporarily pulls scientists out of a sometimes-hectic work environment. Like most researchers, physicists in the department usually juggle talks and conferences, while working under the pressure of meeting short-term deadlines and fast-paced publishing. Gian Giudice hopes that these months of relative isolation will be an opportunity to refocus on the bigger picture in a calmer environment, which may be a breeding ground for provocative new ideas – not unlike the annus mirabilis of 1666, when Sir Isaac Newton made bountiful discoveries that are sometimes attributed to his stay in his home town after a plague chased him away from Cambridge University.

The point never was to idealise lockdown. Although the transition to stage 3 went smoothly for the Theoretical Physics department and led to interesting innovations, lockdown has brought with it its fair share of drawbacks. Gian Giudice mentions some of them, from the lack of opportunities to gain greater visibility for people who are at an early stage of their career, to the lack of informal and spontaneous discussions with colleagues, which he sorely misses. “We may all be doing our best in this period, but we are very much looking forward to coming back to the office.”