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Understanding complexity

- Wits University

Physicists like Professor Zeblon Vilakazi seek to answer ancient fundamental questions, such as: Where do you come from? What holds us together?

Delivering his inaugural lecture, titled: Understanding complexity: Study of nuclear mater under extreme conditions, Vilakazi highlighted his involvement at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, in the biggest scientific project the world has undertaken in the past 50 years.

Before taking up his appointment as Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs at Wits University in 2014, the highly respected nuclear physicist was instrumental in establishing South Africa's first experimental high-energy physics research group, focusing on the development of the High-level Trigger for the CERN-ALICE experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

“The LHC is an amazing piece of engineering. It is the most complex scientific project since the landing of humankind on the moon,” he said.

The US$9-billion collider smashes atoms together using colliders to simulate the early universe just after the Big Bang. “The LHC is a discovery machine and will determine the future of High Energy Physics. We are doing very ‘violent physics’ where particles are smashed into each other – they collide to give you species of particles that only existed at the beginning of time,” Vilakazi said.

It is from these collisions that scientists pick up data in the same way as astronomers pick data that comes from the early universe. “Our detectors become almost like our telescopes that pick up the early universe by smashing these particles together. Basically, we are launching two attacks: the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will look out into large scale structure, and we, physicists, look at inner-space. So we are launching almost like a pincer attack on the early universe to understand the fundamental questions to define who we are as human beings.”

He has been involved with the ALICE detector (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) for some 20 years, and more particularly where the experiment focusses on muons. To process the vast amounts of data from the signals that ALICE can track, the team that Vilakazi was involved with developed what is called the High-level Trigger (HLT) that removes all the data without throwing the good physics away.

But finding that “needle in a haystack” in the data is “like downloading some 22 000 DVDs a day and looking for your favourite track,” Vilakazi said.

A first in the world

The HLT-team wrote highly sophisticated algorithms and built a computing grid. For the first time in the world, physicists were doing real-time computing.

This successful international collaboration meant that researchers sitting in different locations all over the world were able to do real-time tracking, calculating and comparing of data as well as mapping their results and feeding it back to CERN.

This development has played a significant role in developing end-user real-time scientific collaboration around the world.