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UWC’s World Nuclear Research Success

UWC’s Nuclear Research Success: African Science At CERN

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) is flying the nuclear research flag for South Africa; earlier this year, the UWC research team conducted its first experiments at the prestigious European Centre of Nuclear Research (CERN) - and in November 2016, it will become the first African university to lead an experiment at the biggest, most powerful laboratory created by humankind.

It’s a dream come true for Professor Nico Orce, professor of nuclear physics and nuclear astrophysics at UWC’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, who has spent four years chasing a chance like this.

Based in Geneva (Switzerland), CERN, which has been responsible for several Nobel Prize-winning discoveries, houses the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, the Large Hadron Collider which lies in a tunnel 27km in circumference, and employs 20 000 scientists and engineers.

Although other South African universities - such as Wits, the University of Johannesburg and the University of Cape Town - are strong collaborators at CERN, this is the first time an African university will actually lead an experiment there.

UWC has been allocated six days of beam time, which comes with a price tag of up to R2 million a day, to conduct groundbreaking research on the shape of exotic nuclei that last for only a matter of seconds, at extremely tiny scales of a few 10-15m - too small even for powerful electron microscopes.  

“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. “Together, we can lead science worldwide through work done right here on the continent.”

Among his top students is Craig Mehl, currently a research scholar at the University of Kentucky in the United States, 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, having undergone training there.

And Prof Orce has another group of students coming up fast behind them.

“UWC is a historically disadvantaged institution, and many of our students are also historically disadvantaged - but we are proving none of that really matters if we work hard and love what we do,” he says.

“This experiment will open the doors of CERN to all African institutions. We walked through first. Now others will be able to follow.”

In the meantime, there is plenty of training to be done to ensure his students are prepared to use the time there to collect data that will form the basis of their Masters and PhDs.

The MINIBALL Array at CERN, where UWC will run a groundbreaking nuclear experiment

The keys to the universe

From shaky beginnings, UWC has definitely grown its capability in the physical sciences, from astrophysics to solid states physics and more - to the extent that Nature Index ranked UWC number 1 in physical sciences in South Africa - and Africa as a whole - this year.

“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 adds. “And our students will go on to become world leaders, in whatever they do.”

Orce believes South African heroes like Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Oliver Tambo fought not only for physical freedom, but for the freedom to dream - to stretch our imaginations and extend the limits of human understanding.

“By doing these kinds of experiments, our students gain self-assurance, and can demonstrate initiative and achieve greatness,” he says. “And when they realise what they’re capable of, what can stop them then?”

“Along with the keys to the most famous scientific laboratory in the world, we’re giving students the keys to unlock the mysteries of the universe.”

Want to know more about how this groundbreaking experiment, and what it means for  science and society in South Africa (and beyond)? Let Prof Orce explain it in his own words at The Conversation Africa.