UWC takes the lead in physics research

A team of students from the University of Western Cape (UWC), led by Professor Nico Orce, is the first African research team to lead an experiment at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

The day when the shosholoza was sung inside the heart of CERN! (Image: Nico Orce)

Sulaiman Philip

Better known as the home of the Large Hadron Collider, CERN is one of the most prestigious science research facilities in the world. It attracts the crème de la crème of international researchers, and now a team from UWC has joined their ranks.

Led by the university’s Professor Nico Orce, the team of postgraduate students fired a selenium beam into a platinum target. The idea was to smash two nuclei into each other in the hope of causing an excitation in the selenium isotope.

Selenium 70 lives for about 42 minutes and is produced during x-ray bursts, most commonly found in the stellar explosions of neutron stars. The new research facility at CERN, the Isotope Separator On-Line facility (ISOLDE), has an unstable selenium beam that is necessary for the experiments the UWC team is undertaking.

UWC PhD student Kenzo Abrahams at CERN setting up the experiment. (Image: Nico Orce)

South Africa joined the Isolde Collaboration — an agreement between nations and CERN to conduct experiments in the fields of nuclear and atomic physics, solid-state physics, materials science and life sciences — in 2017. This allows the country to benefit from ISOLDE’s beams of unstable exotic particles, such as selenium 70 and germanium 66.

Orce explains: “So far, we can only accelerate stable beams at iThemba LABS, so we needed to go to CERN to complete these experiments. Soon enough we may be doing these kinds of measurements for the first time at iThemba LABS, here in South Africa. That will be great.”

At the South African facility, in Somerset West, scientists in the physical, medical and biologial sciences undertake research for advanced education, the treatment of cancers and the production of unique radioisotopes.

The goal of the UWC experiment was to discover how unstable exotic elements were created. “Above iron ore we do not know how elements are produced. Question marks still remain over how these elements are created,” says the professor.

The team’s experiments did not produce the results for which they had hoped; however, instead of selenium 70, they were able to measure the creation of a different exotic particle, germanium 66. “We can still say we were successful. It’s the first time that germanium 66 was produced on Earth. We were able to study the decay of germanium 66 until we find a stable isotope.”

Science, Orce says, “is like fighting Mike Tyson. You jab and jab until you can land a clean shot.”

The small peak on the right is the first excitation in 66Ge. Evidence of the UWC teams success. (Image: Nico Orce)

The benefits to UWC and the country

To encourage his students to reach for the stars, Orce, a Spaniard, uses the experience of the Spanish team that won the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The team that arrived in the country were underdogs. “We made history because we believed in ourselves. Afterwards the team were feared, respected.”

The physics postgraduate programme at UWC consists of 50 previously disadvantaged students. It attracts, Orce says, not necessarily the best students but they all dream of lifting themselves up. To encourage their dreams he insisted that the best of his students were part of his research team.

“I wanted them to know that dreams come true if you work hard. I believe that having them work with the best scientists will show them the world beyond their own circumstances. It was life changing. Some of these students will be professors one day.”
In an interview with the CERN newsletter, Master’s student Senamile Masango said: “I am a role model now. You will hardly find any women doing physics in South Africa, and you will hardly find any black physicists. Nico treats us all equally and he’s making us hungry to break every barrier. We’re making history.”

As the lead research team, the UWC students and their professor were responsible for setting parameters and monitoring controls. Team member Sifiso Ntshangase was team leader, which gives him the opportunity to suggest further experiments that can be conducted at CERN. “There is a responsibility that goes along with being the first African team, of being from UWC. We will keep proposing new experiments; we want to go back.”

Going back is not simply a matter of proposing innovative experiments, however. To run the facilities at CERN is expensive. Orce explains: “To get beam time is not easy, or cheap. It costs €100,000 (R1.5-million) per day. We have to thank the Department of Science and Technology for helping to make our trip possible.”

It was important that the team from UWC led the research, he adds. Now that the experiment is completed, teams from UWC and their research partners at the University of York in the UK will analyse the data before publishing results in scientific journals. “We will be lead authors. This will impact on the quality of visiting professors we can attract. Already we have leading nuclear physicists interested in doing a sabbatical at the university.”

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