UWC takes on big science
THE University of the Western Cape is flying the nuclear research flag for South Africa; it is the first African university to have an experiment approved to run at the prestigious European Centre of Nuclear Research (CERN), the holy grail for scientists worldwide.
UWC has been allocated six days of experiments in November, which comes with a price tag of up to R2 million a day to conduct groundbreaking research that will not only put the historically disadvantaged institution in the world spotlight, but also offer the local students involved the opportunity of a lifetime.
It’s a dream come true for Nico Orce, professor of nuclear physics and nuclear astrophysics in UWC’s department of physics and astronomy, who has spent the past four years chasing a chance for the university and his students to lead their own research at the biggest, most powerful laboratory.
CERN, which won the Nobel Prize for Physics this year, is based in Geneva, Switzerland.
It has the world’s largest particle collider, the so-called Large Hadron Collider which lies in a tunnel 27km in circumference and employs 20 000 scientists and engineers.
Although other South African universities, such at Wits, the University of Johannesburg and UCT are strong collaborators at CERN, Orce said this was the first time an African university would actually lead an experiment there.
The process began in 2012 when Orce first submitted their scientific case to CERN, but was told he needed a letter of clarification – which meant he first had to simulate the experiment here at home.
“I spent a lot of time sleeping in my office at that time as I ran calculations over a long period of time.
“But I wrote the letter in September 2013 and it was approved.”
The next hurdle was to tackle the Department of Science and Technology to ensure payment of fees equivalent to about R500 000 a year to allow UWC to schedule the experiment.
Orce said it was a fee benefiting universities around the country, literally opening the doors of CERN.
“This is a story of initiative, leadership and opening the doors of dreaming,” he said.
The fee was paid last November and the experiment, which will investigate how to measure the shape of some exotic nuclei that are so unstable many last for only a matter of seconds, has been set for six days in November.
In the meantime, said Orce, there was plenty of training to be done to ensure his students were prepared to use the time there to collect data that will form the basis of their master’s degrees and PhDs.
To secure funding for the preparatory work, UWC also joined the SA-CERN Collaboration, securing a budget to potentially send as many as 10 students to take part in the experiment in Geneva.
“We are lucky to have iThemba LABS right here in Somerset West, the largest science laboratory in the southern hemisphere. We built a pipeline there for these kinds of experiments we will do at CERN.
“But our aim is not only to work towards those six days in November, but also to make sure we can do this kind of physics right here in South Africa,” Orce said.
Among his top students is Craig Mehl, a research scholar at the University of Kentucky in the US, but a registered PhD student at UWC.
Mehl, along with two more of Orce’s students, Kenzo Abrahams and Makabata Mokgolobotho, are so-called CERN users after undergoing training there.
And Orce said he had another group of students com- ing up fast behind them.
“UWC is known as an historically disadvantaged institution and our students historically disadvantaged, but we are proving none of that really matters if we work hard and love what we do.
“We need to forget those paradigms because if UWC can do this, we will hopefully set off a domino effect and other universities like ours will realise they can do it too,” he said.
Orce believes South Africa’s great heroes like Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Oliver Tambo fought not only for physical freedom, but for the freedom to dream.