In March 2020, as the world was grappling with the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, John Doyle and colleagues at Harvard University were faced with the bleak prospect of shutting down their experiments on ultracold atoms and molecules, perhaps indefinitely. So they turned their physics expertise to a rather different but more timely set of problems: Could N95 masks, in perilously short supply at the time, be decontaminated and reused?1 And how could the risks of airborne disease transmission be most effectively mitigated in a laboratory or office setting?2 

Through their work, they helped Harvard develop a plan to safely and quickly reopen its research labs—including their own, shown in figure 1. “By June 2020 we were working at 70% capacity,” says Doyle, “and a couple months after that we were back to essentially 100%. Although we didn’t have any visitors during the shutdown, we enjoyed the...

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