UWC students performed an experiment on sub atomic matter. Picture: CERN
UWC students performed an experiment on sub atomic matter. Picture: CERN

UWC students make history at CERN lab in Switzerland

By Lisa Isaacs Time of article published Aug 1, 2017

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A group of UWC students and their professor recently performed the first African-led experiment at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) laboratory in Switzerland.

They used some of the most powerful scientific equipment in existence to examine sub-atomic matter and reflect on what happens when stars explode. Through the culmination of a five-year project, the team is paving the way for a bright future for nuclear physics on the continent.

CERN is the place where the world's best physicists and engineers go to find out more about the basic constituents of matter, the fundamental particles that make up our


Professor Nico Orce was accompanied by postgraduate students: Dineo Mavela, Senamile Masango, Elijah Akakpo, Kenzo Abrahams, Craig Mehl, George O’Neill, Elias Martin Montes and Cebo Ngwetsheni from UWC, and Sifiso Ntshangase from UniZulu.

All these students come from historically disadvantaged institutions through the successful MaNus/MatSci honours/masters programme at UWC.

Orce said the project started in 2012. The experiment began on July 13 and was completed last week.

“Dreams take their time to be accomplished. After the SA-CERN collaboration sponsored me to defend the first African-led experiment at CERN, the international committee requested a letter of clarification with a full simulation of the experiment.

"Remember, that to run an experiment at CERN is very expensive (about R1.5 million per day). After I did the full simulation we were awarded five days to experiment in 2013.

"Then, the SA government had to pay the fees for the experiment to be scheduled. “We mustn't forget our SA pioneers at CERN, like Krish Bharuth-Ram, who managed to get the memorandum of agreement signed by CERN and the National Research Foundation (at the) end of 2015. Finally our experiment could be scheduled.”

The research was about measuring the shape of this nucleus, of only a few 0.000000000000001 metres apart.

Masango said the experience has motivated her to do even more. 

“We were certainly not observers; we led this incredibly complex experiment and had amazing support from the engineers at CERN. We could see that we are not quite at their level yet, because they have spent so much more time at CERN, using their systems. 

"But what that did was to show us just how much we could achieve in the future.”

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