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7 February 2022
Fun With Physics: The Cartoon Adventures Of A Nuclear Physicist
"It was the year 2022. The third and final year of the pandemic. The world of science was desperately in need of hope, motivation, and social interaction. Isomeric came to the rescue with his Radioactive Ion Bean Facility and loads of humour to share with everyone."

Thus begins the (mis)adventures of Isomeric - a young nuclear physicist with big dreams, frequent daydreams, and a less-than-stellar grasp of English. His tale is told in Isomeric & The Radioactive Ion Bean Facility, a cartoon epic created by UWC nuclear physicist, Prof Nico Orce.
     Prof Nico Orce at CERN

It’s a tale filled with famous physicists (some of whom may or may not get experimented on), overactive imaginations, and the infamous radioactive ion beans themselves. Along the way, Isomeric explores concepts like statistical model calculations, particle emission and Coulomb excitation in absurd, hilarious and simple-to-understand ways - and really delves into the process of doing science.

Isomeric’s drawings are intended to be explained explicitly during class by extracting the actual mathematical content. For Prof Orce, it’s a quick introduction to nuclear physics - to get people hooked on exploring the nature of the universe.

“I believe this can be a powerful teaching tool - a way to gently hook the student into the subject, and make some complicated concepts a little clearer,” Prof Orce said. “The pursuit of Radioactive Ion Bean Facilities has been going on for many years. Lots of investment, millions of dollars and euros, huge technological improvements to reach the production of very exotic nuclei very far from stability - those nuclei which only exist for a very short time, but that tell us so much about the creation of elements in stellar explosions”. 

He knows firsthand just how complicated it can be. 

From shaky beginnings, UWC has grown its capability in the physical sciences - from astrophysics to solid states physics and more. The Times Higher Education Subject Rankings declared UWC number 1 in Physical Sciences in South Africa, and Africa, for 2021/2022.

Prof Orce has played a role in that as well, having led students and conducted research all over the world - and having run UWC’s first African-led experiment proposed at CERN (auspiciously called “Ubuntu”), using some of the most powerful scientific equipment to examine sub-atomic matter and reflect on what happens when stars explode. He was the principal force behind the multi-university GAMma-ray spectrometer for Knowledge in Africa (GAMKA to friends - a Khoisan word for “lion), a R35-million instrument used to study a wide range of nuclear properties and phenomena, such as nuclear lifetimes and gamma-ray strength functions.

“Our African breakthrough CERN experiments, GAMKA, Modern African Nuclear DEtector LAboratories at UWC and UNIZULU, our students leading publications in top journals, visits and talks from Nobel Laureates, national and international exchange programmes and collaborations. None of this would have been possible, if not for the support of the entire UWC community,” he says. 

The Radioactive Ion Bean Facility, uploaded to Nico’s Nuclear Physics Channel on YouTube, has gained hundreds of comments and views, and praise from around the world - accolades from colleagues in the US, India, UK, SA, Spain, Canada, and even an invitation to give a science-education/outreach talk in a prestigious international conference.

“Suddenly I became a real cartoonist - though not for the first time,” Prof Orce said. “In high-school, I wrote the book ‘In Search of the Chorizo Sandwiches’, for which I won an award for the best drawing. My mom keeps that one safe at home in Spain.”
In the end, it's all about laughter and making physics fun - and for those looking for the further educational misadventures of a daydreamy physicist, keep an eye out for the sequel.

“I hope you enjoy Isomeric & The Radioactive Ion Bean Facility as much as I did while bringing it to life. And now to get back to working on Isomeric & The Gamma-Ray Laser, and Isomeric & The Radioactive Mango.”

"Grow Up To Be Yet Braver Than We” - Developing The Physicists Of Tomorrow

It’s all part of Prof Orce’s years-long quest to help produce the next generation of home-grown nuclear physicists - a cadre of young African scientists who will explore the basic building blocks of our universe, and help us understand our place in it.

“The world needs more nuclear physicists. We need a new generation to master the complex mysteries of the atomic and sub-atomic world - and someday provide us with the tools to tame the energy of stars, nuclear fusion, on which the future of civilisation may well lie. And while we’re looking for those secrets, we can help African people with better and cheaper alternatives to cancer imaging and treatment - and other things we can’t even imagine yet.” 

That is why Prof Orce has for years been championing Tastes of Nuclear Physics, one of South Africa’s most successful conferences on fundamental nuclear physics and applications, providing a chance for exchanging ideas and providing world-class exposure to African students coming from historically disadvantaged backgrounds. 

As Professor John Wood, a US-based expert in the theoretical and experimental study of nuclear structure, and a regular Tastes attendee, explains: “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. That’s why I came here!”

Students and post-docs from UWC and UNIZULU - including rising stars like Kenzo Abrahams, Craig Mehl, Sizwe Mhlangu and Senamile Masango - have benefited from the experience, and gone on to make a big splash.

“Science never stops - it’s at the core of human advancement,” said UWC PhD student Cebo Ngwetsheni. “It’s what will carry us into a brighter future. We may not always know how - but it’s beautiful to see the amazing applications that come from our research.”

And when it comes to groundbreaking work, it’s hard to think of anyone who fits the bill better than Kenzo Abrahams, whose work took him from Kuilsriver to Geneva, and who graduated as UWC’s first PhD scholar sponsored by CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. 

“Students like Kenzo and Cebo have closed the loop,” notes Prof Orce. “They’ve proved to the world that UWC's students can run, lead, and finish the highest demanding scientific job at the greatest physics laboratory ever made by humankind - and change our understanding of the universe.”