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UWC students on the way to Cern

These are the most exciting times to do physics in South Africa, and at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in particular, where we have opened the doors for big science.

“The doors for dreaming big are here!” says Professor Nico Orce from Brackenfell, and the Department of Physics and Astronomy states it.

UWC drives the first experiment ever led by an African institution at the prestigious European Centre for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Switzerland and Craig Mehl, a postgraduate (PhD) from Athlone, is part of seven South African students involved in this exciting project.

“The project is entitled ‘Measuring the Shape Conundrum’ and it’s about measuring the shape of a very exotic nucleus, 70Se, which ‘lives’ for only 41 minutes,” says Orce.

“It will tell us how very tiny nuclei, that cannot even be seen in the most powerful microscope, may change shapes with just a small amount of energy from prolate to oblate or vice versa, and whether the elements that we see around us may have been produced in stellar explosions on the surface of neutron stars.”

Mehl will be part of the experiment led by UWC. He will analyse this complicated data for his PhD together with Kenzo Abrahams from Kuils River and the UWC group.

“UWC has been preparing this breakthrough for almost 15 years. The Honours/Masters programme (Masters of Nuclear Science or MaNus) provides physics students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds with bursaries and the possibility to go through postgraduate studies, and have led to excellence since.”

UWC provides them with exciting and high-impact science projects here at iThemba Labs (Somerset West) and internationally (Canada, Germany, USA and Cern).

“We already have over 50 members in our nuclear physics group, which comprises one of the largest physics groups in any university worldwide, and our goal is that our students become world leaders in nuclear physics and nuclear astrophysics,” says Orce.

Mehl is already working at the University of Kentucky in the USA (since last June) as a research scholar as part of his PhD training. Mehl will gain hands-on and research skills working closely with one of the few on-campus accelerators in the world (very closely, as the accelerator is part of the physics department).

There he’ll take advanced postgraduate physics courses not available in South Africa, and learn how to measure very short nuclear lifetimes of about 0.000,000,000,000,001 seconds!

It is striking to know that these shortest nuclear lifetimes are responsible for the age of the oldest objects in the universe, such as globular clusters. He remains registered at UWC.

“Craig was one of my best students in third year quantum mechanics and nuclear physics at UWC. He won an award for best presentation in Russia last year and last January, after a demanding training, he became a Cern user,” says Orce.

“He is quiet but extremely dedicated, like a bulldog, he doesn’t let it go until he gets it done.”

Mehl will join Cern in November from the United States of America and will only be back in SA for Christmas.

“He’ll remain in the States until June next year and will be back to analyse the Cern data. His training in the USA is essential to complement here at iThemba Labs and the physics we’re doing at Cern. Remember iThemba Labs is the largest science laboratory in the southern hemisphere and it’s around the corner in Somerset West. The final discovery of how nuclei change shape will surely come from South Africa,” adds Orce.

“For that, we’re requesting the government for a new array of gamma detectors, Gamka, which means lion in Khoikhoi, which will enable new exciting opportunities for nuclear physics and astrophysics and bring South Africa up to a world-leading position. This is what’s actually happening,” says Orce.

“Craig’s experience is the USA will definitely be very useful to himself and others once he’s back. He is a product of UWC from undergraduate through PhD level, where he’s now, and is still single.

“Craig has been the first one to finish a degree (masters) related to Cern. His hobbies are physics, mathematics and music.

“Join us; join the dream. All this wouldn’t be possible without the SA-Cern collaboration for their financial support,” says Orce.

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