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SA contributes to science breakthrough

The Large Hadron Collider is being prepared for its second three-year run. (Photograph by CERN)

The Large Hadron Collider is being prepared for its second three-year run. (Photograph by CERN)

South African scientists contributed significantly towards the knowledge base that helped an international experiment make a breakthrough in proving a particle discovered in July 2012 is a type of Higgs boson, a finding that could be the most substantial physics discovery of our time.

The Higgs particle is the missing piece of the Standard Model of Physics, a set of rules that outline the fundamental building blocks of the universe, such as protons, electrons and atoms. Finding it starts a new era for science, because scientists will be able to probe previously uninvestigated parts of the universe.

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) yesterday said the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had found new results on an important property of the Higgs particle. The discovery of the elusive particle was announced almost two years ago.

Home-grown contribution

Bruce Mellado, an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand's School of Physics, says the finding is "certainly an important milestone in determining that what we discovered is a Higgs boson". He notes the ATLAS experiment, in which SA is involved, has reported a similar result.

Locally, about 70 South Africans are involved in the global project and, while the team is small in comparison to those from other countries, there are substantial benefits coming out of its involvement. Four universities are participating in the programme: Wits, University of Cape Town, the University of Johannesburg, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

As a result, says Mellado, SA has contributed "significantly" towards the knowledge base that paved the way for yesterday's announcement. The Higgs boson gives matter mass and holds the physical fabric of the universe together.

Missing piece

The particle is named after Peter Higgs, who, in the 1960s, was one of six authors who theorised about the existence of the particle. It is commonly called the "God Particle", after the title of Nobel physicist Leon Lederman's "The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?" (1993), according to Wikipedia.

Yesterday's announcement, hailed as a major breakthrough, is the result of work done at the LHC, the £2.6 billion "Big Bang" particle accelerator at the centre of the hunt for the Higgs boson. The LHC has been dubbed the world's largest experiment and is housed at CERN.

The LHC is the largest scientific instrument ever built. It lies in an underground tunnel with a circumference of 27km that straddles the French-Swiss border, near Geneva, and has been heralded as the most important new physics discovery machine of all time.

"With our ongoing analyses, we are really starting to understand the mechanism in depth," says CMS spokesperson Tiziano Camporesi. "So far, it is behaving exactly as predicted by theory."

The LHC was offline for maintenance and upgrading during the last 18 months, and preparations are now under way for it to restart early in 2015 for its second three-year run. The experiment will run until 2030 and will be upgraded to 10 times its initial design specification, with the ability to collect 100 times more data.

"Much work has been carried out on the LHC over the last 18 months or so, and it's effectively a new machine, poised to set us on the path to new discoveries," says CERN DG Rolf Heuer.


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