UWC takes on big science

CERN re­search

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - WEEKEND ARGUS RE­PORTER

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.

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