Inside science’s own Big Bang

2012-12-04 00:00

THE office of theoretical and computational physicist Nicolin Govender at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva, Switzerland, is in the same building where Tim Berners-Lee wrote his paper in 1989, proposing what would eventually become the World Wide Web. “The original paper is still kept there,” says Govender. “You can see his supervisor’s comment on it: ‘vague, but good’.”

One wonders if similar sentiments were expressed back in 1964 on Peter Higgs’s paper, in which he proposed the mechanism that suggested that a particle — that became known as the Higgs boson — existed. Under what is known as the Standard Model of Physics, the Higgs boson is posited to have been the agent that gave mass and energy to matter after the Big Bang creation of the universe 13,7 billion years ago. It is the mysterious factor that holds everything together — humans, tables, teacups, the universe.

“It’s how everything gets mass,” says Govender. “The Higgs boson makes everything else fit into what we know. At Cern, we found what fits the Standard Model.”

Govender was one of the fewer than 10 South African scientists present when the elusive Higgs boson was first observed in July at Cern. He is currently visiting his parents in Raisethorpe, before heading down to Durban to present a lecture this week at the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) Conference being held at the International Convention Centre.

Govender was born in Northdale and it was while attending Springhaven Primary School that he first became interested in physics, having been told it was a difficult subject. “I was curious from primary school, where we were always told maths and science were important.”

At Northbury Park Secondary, principal Kiran Maharaj encouraged Govender to continue with physics when he went to the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2006 to do a BSc. “There, Professor Nithiya Chetty directed and mentored me in computational physics,” says Govender.

After doing honours in physics and computer science, Govender went to the University of Johannesburg for his Master’s on the design of nuclear reactors. Completed in eight months, it was selected as the best Master’s in South African physics of that year. “My supervisor at UJ was Professor Simon Connell, who directed and motivated me into high-energy physics. He is the reason for my interest in particle physics and I aspire to be as good as him.”

Working with Connell at UJ opened the door to Cern. “He is one of the leading scientists involved in the co-operation between South Africa and Cern,” says Govender.

Cern runs the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, employing over 2 000 full-time employees and 1 500 part-time employees, as well as hosting around 10 000 visiting scientists and engineers, representing 113 countries and 608 universities and research facilities. What attracts them are the particle accelerators and other machines required for high-energy physics research. There is also a large computer centre, where Govender has his office, containing powerful data-processing facilities used for the analysis of experimental data.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern was designed especially either to confirm or exclude the existence of the Higgs boson. Built in a 27-kilometre long underground tunnel, it was created to collide two beams of protons at various speeds. According to the theory, collisions at such high speeds would reveal the Higgs boson.

“You fire off a bunch of protons,” says Govender, “and they go spinning around. Some collide, some hit and bounce off each other and a few have head-on collisions. The head-on collisions were what we were after.

“There were millions of events per second,” says Govender, “which involves a huge statistical analysis.”

Govender’s task was dealing with all the data produced by those “millions of events”. “My work was mainly computational — what to do with data, how to analyse it — and then we see if we could replicate what we got in the experiment.”

There were two separate teams working on the search for the Higgs boson connected to the two main particle detectors connected to the LHC - Atlas and CMS. On July 4, both teams announced their findings. All pointed to the existence of the Higgs boson.

There was no collusion allowed between the two teams. “You were not allowed to speak about what you were doing with members of the other team,” says Govender. The similar findings of the two teams met the scientific protocols required to confirm such a discovery.

“Technically, we didn’t actually find the Higgs boson,” says Govender. “But it leaves a unique signature behind it — things happen that couldn’t happen if it didn’t exist. In fact, it would be more difficult to prove it didn’t exist.”

“That’s science. You think something might be there so you go and look for it. There was a 50-50 chance we wouldn’t find it. And even if we hadn’t, we discovered so much more, including other bosons.”

“Everything was based on good faith that something like this existed down the line. That it was found justified the centuries of work by great scientists, from Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein.

“Finding it doesn’t totally rule out the possibility that other theories exist. Other theories could exist, but what we have found is confirmation that in the realm of the physical world, this can be done with what we know.”

Govender is currently in South Africa while the LHC has been shut down for an upgrade to increase its power. “This will allow us to do more in-depth work to study these collisions,” says Govender. “It will be powered up to get us as close as possible to the Big Bang.”

Govender is currently completing his PhD on the computational simulation of particle transport in collaboration with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the University of Pretoria.

“After that, I intend doing a post-doctorate with Professor Connell as part of the SA-Cern collaboration, as the upgrades to the LHC over the next few years promise to hold even more excitement once we are up and running.”

— Some information sourced from Sapa and Wikipedia.

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