By Anshul Kapoor
From a town known as Almora in the foothills of the Himalayas, where I grew up, to a particle physics laboratory in Geneva near the Alps, my journey to becoming an experimental particle physicist has been fascinating.
Almora is a picturesque little hill station in the Uttarakhand state of India. Life is slow but there it is calm. The sunsets are magical and the views are stunning. When I was at school, most of us living in Almora didn't attach a lot of importance to it as a place. No one likes a slow lifestyle, I guess. The slow internet, uneven roads, no good university, difficult accessibility, and once every year a water crisis, Almora had its problems. Like all my friends, I knew I had to leave this beautiful place at some point to pursue a career and make it big in life. And so I did. Right after I finished school in 2010, I packed my bags and left for Delhi where I did my undergraduate studies in physics at the University of Delhi. Life in Delhi was fast and busy. There were no beautiful sunsets to see, but there were wonderful teachers to learn from and great books in the library to spend time with.
In 2013, I moved to the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune to work towards a Ph.D. in physics. The fact that I ended up taking particle physics as the subject of my Ph.D., was just a coincidence. I had worked on a short 3-month project in Astrophysics right after my undergraduate studies and for unknown reasons, I was adamant that I wanted to be an Astrophysicist. Right? Barely a 3-month exposure and I had already made up my mind. I know now that I was being naive, but who knew at the time. After arriving in Pune, I was very disappointed to learn that none of the astrophysics professors were picking up students that year. I was downhearted and almost thought of quitting and going back to Almora. Fortunately, I met Prof. Sourabh Dube who was also just joining IISER, as a particle physicist. He was the first experimental particle physicist to join the institute. We first met at the cafeteria where Sourabh told me that he too wanted to pursue Astrophysics when he joined his Ph.D. and ended up taking particle physics almost coincidently. He also explained how Astrophysicists and particle physicists are trying to solve the same kind of physics problems. Half an hour into the conversation, I was now convinced that I actually wanted to be a particle physicist. It is now a wonder to me how I went from quitting physics to starting back again with full motivation in a matter of a day. I am not sure if Sourabh actually ever wanted to pursue Astrophysics or that he just made up the story to convince me, but whatever it was, it changed my life forever.
I spent 6 years at IISER, working with Sourabh. I witnessed and contributed to the setting up of an experimental particle physics group from scratch. For the first year or so, we were not a part of the CMS collaboration. For Sourabh as well, this was a new experience as he had worked on a different experiment prior to joining IISER. We joined the CMS collaboration soon and started contributing to particle physics research. It was interesting to witness how physicists across the world were collaborating remotely on common projects. We used to have daily meetings through conference calls, talking to people across the globe. Some days, in the morning I was talking to a collaborator from the United States to carry out a certain part of a project, and in the evening I was talking to another collaborator from Turkey to finish the rest of the project. To my colleagues in other departments, it was surprising that thousands of people were working on the same experiment. Obviously, the actual CMS experiment is at CERN which is between France and Switzerland, so during my Ph.D., I got a chance to contribute to the running of the experiment for which I had to travel to CERN. This happened a couple of times during my Ph.D.
I remember one day in 2017 while I was sipping a coffee at CERN, I saw an extraordinary view of the Alps. It almost felt like a homecoming. After 2010, I seldom traveled to Almora. Whenever I did, it was a short trip to see my parents and a lot of time was usually spent watching and photographing the Himalayas. It used to be an extraordinary feeling to see the majestic Himalayan peaks right outside of my window, and even more exciting to see because I knew I would not be able to catch this view except for when I am at home. Seeing the majestic alps from CERN was a feeling I will never forget. It almost felt like I was working from my home in Almora, thinking this is the closest I can be to feeling at home. Obviously, the thought of actually working from home in Almora while still doing particle physics was never going to happen. At that point, I did not realize how my life was going to play wonders with me later on.
In December 2019 I finished my Ph.D. and moved to the Institute of high energy physics in Beijing for my new assignment as a Postdoc. I traveled back to India in January of 2020 for my wedding. The trip was supposed to be 12 days long. I didn't even bring my laptop with me, since it was not working that well and I was almost about to buy a new one. My wedding happened on the 26th of January and I now had to take a flight back to Beijing on the 6th of February. But, COVID-19 struck. My return flight was cancelled. All my stuff including some of my important documents, my hard-drive, and my old dying laptop were all in Beijing. I was told to work from home for a while. Work from home? Really? I couldn't even get a decent internet connection at home in Almora and my old dying laptop was in Beijing. My life from then on was definitely going to be a disaster! Or so I thought?
A few weeks passed in the hope that the COVID crisis will become less severe and I will be able to travel to Beijing. The virus became more severe. It was now an epidemic. With all hopes of returning any time soon dwindling, I knew I had to somehow work from home. I enquired about an internet connection in Almora. To my surprise, things had changed a lot since 2010. My house at the top of a mountain could now get a fiber internet connection with internet speeds up to 50 Mbps. My wife was very kind to let me use her old laptop which was then on my workstation. I then quickly got a fiber internet connection setup at home. I was not hoping to do any wonders working from home but had just hoped to get through until I could get back to Beijing. But the epidemic was only getting worse and working from home was the only choice. On 24th March 2020, the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus in India. My travel prospects were becoming bleak by the day. I didn’t think I could accomplish much working from home.
But I did not realize how much my training of working remotely would help me in the days to come. Soon my work was happening at full speed. I even got selected as the convener of a sub-group in the CMS collaboration. Some days, in the morning I was now helping a student from China carry out a certain part of a project, and in the evening I was working with another collaborator from Switzerland to finish another project. All from home!
Cut to today, it has been more than one year since I came back to India. A few days back my wife and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary. I am not sure when I will be able to travel back to my institute in Beijing or to CERN, but I have now gotten used to working from home. I am thankful that my institute in Beijing has allowed me to continue working from home. Obviously, there are things that I have missed. Some scheduled work at a laboratory in Beijing had to be postponed. Some other projects that I was supposed to be a part of, were not able to start. But to be honest, I have been very lucky to be able to contribute whatever little I could to particle physics, all while being at home. It is amazing how life can make unimaginable things happen. Sipping coffee, looking at the majestic Himalayas from my home, I sometimes remember that day at CERN in 2017 when I had thought that working from home in Almora while still doing particle physics was never going to happen.