Ubuntu* - a powerful motto for an important experiment

The first African-led experiment has taken place at CERN


The first African-led experiment has taken place at CERN, supported by UK researchers. Students and staff from the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, have investigated the isotope Selenium 70 using Isolde, CERN’s nuclear physics facility. (Video: Christoph Madsen/CERN)

The first African-led experiment has taken place at CERN. Students and staff from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) have investigated the isotope selenium 70 at CERN's Isolde facility.  The nucleus of this isotope is known to have two possible shapes, depending on its excitation state, and the team wanted to examine the relationship between shape and energy more closely.

South Africa joined the Isolde collaboration in March 2017 to benefit from HIE-Isolde’s beams of unstable, exotic particles – the country’s own nuclear physics facility has a source of stable beams.  The selenium 70 experiment, using Miniball, is the first to be approved.   

“We’re going to be accelerating a selenium beam into a platinum target,” explains PhD student Kenzo Abrahams, as the team configures the experiment around him.  "By colliding two nuclei, we will cause the excitation of the selenium 70 isotope, and by measuring the intensity of the gamma ray decay, we’ll know which shape has been excited.”

The UWC team, comprising masters and PhD students from the coulomb excitation group, led by Professor Nico Orce and supported by experiment co-lead, Professor David Jenkins from the University of York, certainly feel that they are blazing the way for other South African universities to submit proposals.  “The University of the Western Cape is a historically disadvantaged institution,” explains Nico, “we have team members from rural areas of the Eastern Cape, and others who live in townships.  I hope this experiment will have a domino effect, encouraging similar students and universities to aim for the top.”

Totalling 11 people, the experimental team is much larger than Isolde would normally welcome, but Nico was determined to give as many of his students as possible the opportunity to use one of the world’s best research facilities. 

Senamile Masango is a masters student, “this is my first time outside South Africa and it’s very exciting to be at CERN,” she says, “it’s every scientist’s dream to come to facilities like this!” 

Passionate about her subject, and highly motivated, Senamile is also well aware that she is an important role model, “you will hardly find any women doing physics in South Africa, and you will hardly find any black physicists.  Nico treats us all equally and he’s making us hungry to break every barrier.  We’re making history!”

“The skills that the students are learning at CERN are transformational.” says George O’Neill.  Having finished his PhD at Liverpool, George wanted the challenge of working in a new lab; he was attracted by both the facilities at UWC and Nico’s ethos, “Everyone in this group will go on to be a professor,” he adds.

David Jenkins is co-leading the experiment.  “I’ve worked with Nico for a long time and I’ve been teaching at his ‘Tastes of Nuclear Physics’ summer school for five years.  UWC has a real battle to get funding and Nico has jumped through so many hoops to get here.  I wanted to get them involved at Isolde and help build the research expertise in the team.”

If the extraordinary levels of energy and motivation demonstrated by the team are mirrored by the experimental results, then UWC is set to become a significant name in international nuclear physics.


*Ubuntu is a Xhosa word, translated by one of the team as “I am, because we are”.  It sums up the essence of this passionate and motivated group of young scientists.