(Published - 17 October 2018)
Pack too much matter into the heart of a star, and what happens? You could get a supernova that shines more brightly than a hundred stars. That’s what it felt like at Tastes of Nuclear Physics 8, when scores of smart students mixed with international nuclear physics rocks stars at the University of the Western Cape in an explosive celebration of knowledge.
“Nobody thought Tastes would last for such a long time, with so many speakers willing to take the time (and even pay from their own pockets) to come here to help South African students develop their knowledge of nuclear physics,” says UWC’s Professor Nico Orce, who has championed Tastes of Nuclear Physics since 2011. “But every year brings new students, and exciting new physics to share from all over the world!”
Most of the action took place in the recently-revamped Seminar Room 1.35 in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, which was jam-packed with lively lecturers and interested faces.
Standard Tastes “Terms & Conditions” applied:
- All were welcome, students and staff from any institutions
- No fees (registration or otherwise) were required
- Free refreshments (coffee breaks and delicious lunches) were provided
- Transport was arranged daily by iThemba LABS for students and staff who are based there
- As tradition requires, there was plenty of time to relax and party, in true scientific style
“Nuclear physics is a field that’s crucial to fulfilling South Africa’s economic ambitions, and to discovering more about the basic building blocks of our world,” says Prof Orce. “We’re broadening our students’ horizons, giving them the necessary technical and theoretical skills to achieve excellence in whatever they do in life - while at the same time helping us all see deeper into the cosmos.”
World-class lecturers from Cape Town, SA to Kentucky, USA (not to mention Spain and the UK) delivered interactive lectures on explosive astrophysics, South Africa’s nuclear detection labs and how to get gold from mercury through nuclear physics.
One person who really appreciates the Tastes experience is Prof John Wood, an expert in the experimental study of nuclear structure with radioactive beams who has been at the Georgia Institute of Technology, US since 1972 - and at each and every Tastes of Nuclear Physics since the first.
“We vote with our feet,” he says. “I come here to Tastes at UWC because it’s a fantastic place to visit - and each year I get to go to this wonderful meeting, interact with students, work with young people. I get to show them things - and learn from them as well.”
So what would bring a man back to the same conference year after year?
“We have a photograph each year - all of us who attend Tastes, lined up, shoulder to shoulder - from all nations, creeds, colours. When you see all that cultural diversity, of people united in appreciation of science - you can’t put that feeling into words. It’s just incredible - and I think it’s perhaps one of the greatest achievements in my professional career.”
Students and post-docs from UWC, UniZulu, iThemba Labs and Stellenbosch University presented on their ongoing research projects, in South Africa and beyond, and kept the experts on their toes with questions and discussions.
“When you sow seeds, you want to put the seeds where they will grow the best - and here in South Africa, the young people can make a tremendous difference with their knowledge,” says Prof Wood.
One of those young people making a difference is Sizwe Mhlongo, currently doing his MSc at UniZulu, where he is part of a tri-university collaboration (including the University of York, UK and the University of the Western Cape).
“We went to the UK a few weeks ago to get training on nuclear detectors and on the principles of detecting radiation - we first did simulations using software called GEANT4, and then we went to the lab to get hands-on experience of building detectors,” he says. “The aim was to keep us up to speed, so that we could take those skills, come home and build a laboratory.”
And that’s just what’s happening, with the Modern African Nuclear Detector Laboratories (MANDELAB) being built at UniZulu and UWC.
“These labs will bring an expansion of opportunities for students coming to learn nuclear principles - and also increase the pool of research opportunities available. After that - who knows what will be possible”, he adds.
The University of the Western Cape has hosted Tastes for the last eight years (with the exception of Stellenbosch University in 2016 - and next year, the University of Zululand will have the honour). For more information, just visit: http://nuclear.uwc.ac.za/index.php/tastes-of-nuclear-physics/.