LION in lockdown
The 'Intelligent Lockdown' has lasted over a month now, which makes experimental physics research hard to do, if not downright impossible. Even so, work is continuing. Five Leiden physicists tell us about it.
'I am a BHV (first responder) so I'm in the lab on a regular basis, since people doing crucial work are not to be allowed on a floor alone. This provides me with the opportunity to change a sample or a cable when needed.'
Oosterkamps group operates several types of microscope, investigating at ultralow temperatures. 'Sample that have already been loaded into the microscope can be controlled remotely, and you are good for a couple of weeks.' A large part of the troubleshooting and calibration can be done remotely, too. 'It's often fiddling with drivers, or stuff like as the order in which you launch your software.'
Oosterkamps students and PhD studens are grounded at home. 'Some of them have writing work to do: articles or their thesis. But others, who have just started out, don't have enough data to work out yet. Of course, I could let them do a literature review. That is useful, but the real learning in this field is by working and fidgeting with the experiments, making the gear work.'
According to the new rules, there is no admittance to the buildings, except for maintaining vital functions and crucial research. This touches many researchers and in some cases, this includes PhD students who are almost finished. 'So I hope that, if this is going to last much longer, something can be arranged', Oosterkamp says, 'We have spacious experiment halls. At some point, it might be possible to do the work that can only happen in the lab, while maintaining ten meters distance.'
'I am struggling, honestly, we have two kids aged three and seven, and keeping them busy with schoolwork is a handful. We'll get those long emails from school in Dutch. It is good for our language skills, I must say, haha.'
Silvestri's partner is colleague theoretical physicist Luca Giomi, struggling with the same problems. Silvestri: 'We split up the available time: he works from early in the morning to 1 at noon, I'm working from 1 to five. And the next day, we switch.'
The theoretical researsch in itself can be continued, including the numerical simulations. 'My PhD students are home, but we have virtual group meetings, and that works quite well.'
A special case is the Italian master student who arrived in the Netherlands just before the lockdown. and whom Silvestri met only twice. 'She can't go back to Italy easily either, and she's taking part in the group.'
Apart from the research, there is also the course in Quantum Field Theory that Silvestri is teaching for the first time. 'That's a tough subject, also since there are a lot of equations to be worked out and that works best on an old fashioned school board.'
Sense Jan van der Molen
'We're doing ok at home, even though the kids are getting resteless.' The research, using a Low Energy Electron Microscope (LEEM) has been stopped, however. 'We have to be right beside the machine, and I haven't been able to find a reason why our experiments are crucial. So we can't do any experiments, it's as simple as that'.
Van der Molen hopes for adjustments in the regulations depending on the discipline. 'I can understand that you can not do organic chemistry research where you are standing next to each other in the adjacent fume hood. But in our measurement hall, there is much more space, that should count for something.'
For the time being, there is plenty of data to be worked out, and about five scientific papers in 'several stages of completion'. And a new direction that the group had just entered, exploring new image processing techniques, can be continued.
'We have a cooperation with mathematicians from the Mathematical Institute, who are looking into increasing the resolution of our image using drizzling' This is a technique from astronomy that entails combining several images, recorded with a sub-pixel shift, in order to increase the resolution.
However, even if there is enough to be done for the time being, one has to accept that productivity is lower, warns Van der Molen. 'People have to get used to the new situation.'
John van Noort
'You can get used to anything, I guess', says Van Noort, 'our group has daily meetings, mostly about the research but other things pop up to: practical and social things. I think that's to the students' benefit.'
Many of the students and PhD students can write, Van Noort says, 'I'm glad, because our research has been stopped completely. We work with DNA and proteins. When it's out of the fridge, it will go bad quickly. Our rhythm is: a day of measurements, which determine you experiments on the next day, so we can't come in once a week.'
Another possibility is the simulation of experiments, such as fluorescence microscope imaging. There is more attention to data analysis. One research line involves reading DNA by pulling the strand through a tiny hole, a nanopore, which yields a varying signal. 'This is very noisy data, and we are studying this in detail.'
And finally, there is time for projects that normally have a hard time making it to the top of the priorities list. 'We are setting up a Gitlab server for all of our code.'
As a BHV (first responder), Löffler can visit the lab from time to time to switch on experiments, but in reality, the possibilities are very restricted. Still, there is enough to do, sayz Löffler: literature reviews, writing papers, thinking about new projects, or honing those grant proposals.
And then there are detailed simulations of experiments. 'One of the things that we are heavily involved in is executing our experiments numerically: one simulates the data that the experiment yields, including all imperfections of the apparatus, such a dark photon counts. That is when a detector detects a photon that isn't there. Using all that artificial measurement data, it's possible to get a much better understanding of the experiment.'
The Löffler-group has daily meetings. 'People are worrying about other things, too, that is entirely understandable. Students worry about family and friends, and I think we should offer our suppoprt there, too.'