Jill Hopper in conversation with
Dr Ziri Younsi is an astrophysicist at UCL, and part of the team that captured the first-ever image of a black hole. We met when I interviewed him for the 26 Leaps project at the 2019 Bloomsbury Festival. We’ve become friends, and enjoy talking about life, the universe and everything.
Note 1: March-May
Ziri first heard about the virus last November, from colleagues in Asia. Exponential laws are familiar to physicists; he knew it would spread fast. After a work trip to Singapore in January he fell ill and thinks it was COVID. His mum, a nurse, tested positive; she recovered after having oxygen.
Ziri misses a varied routine: the gym, seeing people. But likes free time; no foreign travel; the environmental benefits. He’s become more independent, doing DIY and getting rid of squirrels in attic. There’s the opportunity for existential reflection about career and purpose. He’s more resilient mentally; you can’t run away from things.
Initially he was getting up early, and very productive. But then monotony hit. He’s surprised how small things give structure in meaningful ways. Lockdown is like having fewer coat hooks in your cupboard – the space is there, but you can do less with it.
Note 2: May-July
Ziri has rediscovered an old bike and been cycling with his wife Lottie, something he hadn’t done since student days. “Freedom, wind in your hair, just lovely.”
He’s also become intrigued by birds, especially owls. “The male finds a nest site in a hollow tree, the female inspects it meticulously and then they spend a few days just cuddling. Learning about them gives a sense of other lives being lived alongside human lives.”
A new awareness of mortality has made Ziri question the meaning of his work; he has found himself reading old academic papers and thinking more deeply about what happens to radiation as it moves through space. This applies to neutron stars, the solar system, the whole universe.
He makes sure he notices the small, positive things that happen each day. “You are lucky just to be alive – to have the chance to live a life.”
Note 3: July-August
In the 12 weeks since we last spoke, Ziri has found his mood fluctuating. He hasn’t been able to meet colleagues face to face for eight months and finds it challenging to teach and give talks via Zoom. “I think I doubt myself more. Normally I know when to act on instinct, now I try not to.”
On the positive side, he was recently awarded a Stephen Hawking Fellowship. This will fund a four-year research project to map the geometry of a black hole’s magnetic field, using information from the Event Horizon Telescope about how light is polarised and scattered.
A new allotment is also bringing Ziri and his wife Lottie a great deal of satisfaction. Their plot has apple, cherry and plum trees, a pond with frogs, and a vine of white grapes. “It’s one of the purest things you can do – working the land, planting things, seeing them grow,” Ziri says.