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11 June 2019
Pear-Shaped Radon Nuclei And The Mystery Of The Missing Anti-You

(Published - 11 June 2019)

University of the Western Cape nuclear physicist Kenzo Abrahams is making his mark in the international scientific community, helping facilitate groundbreaking discoveries at the world’s largest particle physics hub: the European Centre for Nuclear Research in Switzerland (CERN)

Abrahams played a crucial role in setting up a large array of detectors called MINIBALL. This allowed for the discovery of vibrating pear-shaped nuclei, as detailed in a paper on The observation of vibrating pear-shapes in radon nuclei published in Nature Communications  (impact factor 12.353). These nuclei, in turn, allow for searching of electric dipole moments in atoms - or moments when positive and negative charges are separated in atoms.

This will help to determine why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe - shedding light on one of the most important issues in modern physics.

“I wasn’t expecting this publication,” the Kuils River resident says. “I knew my name would be on some papers due to the fact that I helped with the setup of MINIBALL. It is an achievement to have one’s name on a published paper, but the ultimate goal is to finish my PhD and publish an impactful paper myself, as first author, based on the 66Ge research we conducted at CERN in 2017.”

In 2016, students from UWC - including Abrahams, Craig Mehl and Makabata Mokgolobotho - participated in a Coulex ISOLDE workshop at CERN. They were led by Professor Nico Orce from the Department of Physics & Astronomy at UWC. He is also Abrahams’ PhD supervisor.

They performed so well that they opened an unprecedented opportunity for themselves. The following year, Abrahams went back to help set up the new ISOLDE campaign with the MINIBALL array in preparation of the upcoming scheduled IS569 experiment.

Liam Gaffney, Ernest Rutherford Fellow at the University of Liverpool and one of the leading authors of the paper, supervised and mentored Kenzo while at CERN.

“In 2017, Kenzo came to CERN eager to learn all about the setup, maintenance and operation of the Miniball spectrometer,” he recalls. “One year later, he returned as an expert.”

Gaffney praises Kenzo’s contribution: “Maximum performance of the detectors was critical, and Kenzo’s contribution was crucial in ensuring we could measure the weakest transitions, performing calibrations and careful maintenance at the detectors prior to the experiment.”

Professor Peter Butler, also from the University of Liverpool and lead author of the article, says the work would not have been possible without Abrahams’ help.

“The collaboration is highly appreciative of the contribution of the University of the Western Cape to the experiment, as Kenzo was a key member of the team that set up the Miniball spectrometer that was used for our measurements,” Prof Butler notes.

“These results are relevant to searches for atomic electric dipole moments that test theoretical models trying to refine the Standard Model of Particle Physics and explain the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the universe.”

Matter, Antimatter - What Does It Matter?

The Standard Model of Particle Physics is one of humanity’s crowning achievements - an explanatory framework that brings together fundamental forces and links subatomic particles to supernovas. According to this model, every particle of matter has a corresponding antimatter particle: protons vs antiprotons, electrons vs positrons, and so on. But there are much, much more particles of matter than of antimatter - and nobody really knows why this charge-parity (CP) violation exists.

So why does it matter if there’s more matter than antimatter?

“Put it this way,” says Prof Orce. “If CP was not violated, every reaction which produces a particle will be accompanied by a reaction which produces its antiparticle at exactly the same rate. That is precisely why finding new sources for this asymmetry is crucial. If not, you could meet your anti-you one day and vanish altogether from Earth without leaving any trace but a flash of gamma rays.”

Addressing questions like these could lead to major discoveries, and Kenzo will surely be the first author of other high-impact publications.

UWC is currently leading major discoveries with high-impact publications and will soon do the same from experiments done at CERN and elsewhere - and much of that is a result of Kenzo’s pioneering achievement.

Since the National Research Foundation signed its MoU with ISOLDE in 2015 - where Krish Bharuth-Ram’s leadership played a major role - South African scientists can lead experiments at CERN - and UWC plans to make the most of this opportunity.

“Our work at UWC is not only about collaborating with internationally recognised institutions, which is great and rewarding, but also to lead science at CERN ourselves,” says Prof Orce.

“Kenzo is an inspiration, not only to his peers but to his country. He’s the kind of student that will surely succeed, and he’s paved the way with tremendous difficulty for others to follow – to make South Africa proud and to let everyone know there’s no impossibles!”

UWC nuclear physicists Kenzo Abrahams and Prof Nico Orce acknowledge the collaboration between UWC, ISOLDE (CERN) and SA-CERN as well as the National Research Foundation and ENSAR2 ( European Nuclear Science and Applications Research-2) for funding.