KZN physicist worked on finding Nobel-winning particle

2013-10-14 00:00

WHEN Peter Higgs and Francois Englert won the Nobel Prize for physics last week, KwaZulu-Natal’s Nicolin Govender was one of those up on his feet cheering.

Pietermaritzburg-born Govender, whose parents live in Raisethorpe, is a theoretical and computational physicist at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland. He was one of the fewer than 10 South African scientists present when the elusive Higgs boson was first observed at CERN in July 2012.

Govender is in Morocco attending a conference along with other members of the Atlas experiment project who, along with the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) project, discovered the Higgs. “The awards event was live streamed to over 300 of us and the room erupted in celebration,” he says.

Higgs (84) and Englert (80) had been favourites to share the prize after their theoretical work published in 1964 was vindicated by the CERN experiments using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

“We knew there would be a good chance it would go to Peter and Francois,” says Govender, “but being theoretical physicists we weren’t sure, it’s the experimentalists who tend to get the awards.”

Govender said he was glad Englert had received the Nobel Prize as Higgs already had the boson named after him. “It’s great that Francois also now has global coverage. The late Professor Robert Brout was also mentioned as he co-published with Francois Englert.”

The Higgs boson or particle explains how elementary matter attained the mass to form stars and planets. “It’s how everything gets mass — the Higgs boson makes everything else fit into what we know,” Govender told The Witness last year.

The boson was discovered by the Atlas and CMS collaborations at CERN. Each project involves over 3 000 people from around the world, who used specially constructed particle detectors to study proton collisions at CERN’s LHC.

Govender was born in Northdale and attended Springhaven Primary School and Northbury Park Secondary. He did a B.Sc. at the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal plus honours in physics and computer science. Thereafter he went to the University of Johannesburg for his masters on the design of nuclear reactors. Completed in eight months, it was selected as the best masters in SA physics of that year.

His supervisor was Professor Simon Connell, one of the leading scientists involved in the co-operation between South Africa and CERN.

Govender is currently developing software for the detector control room at CERN that will come into play when the LHC is operating again following an upgrade.

He will also be lecturing in Britain and China on his cutting edge work bridging the fields of computer science and physics.

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