Connecting South Africa to CERN

South African scientists contribute to important discoveries made at CERN. TENET works behind the scenes to connect these scientists.
Connecting South Africa to CERN
Image: CERN ATLAS experiment

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), located just outside of Geneva in Switzerland, is home to the largest physics laboratory in the world. CERN first captured the world’s imagination in 2012 with the breakthrough discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle, using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Earlier this year saw new physics-inspired excitement as experiments run on the LHC showed some evidence of a ‘brand new force of nature’ or new physics. While this is still a theory being tested this ‘new physics’ might explain a number of mysteries of the universe, including the nature of dark matter.

“At CERN, we probe the fundamental structure of the particles that make up everything around us. We do so using the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments,” proclaims the CERN website.

As well as the need for these scientific instruments, the ambitious research tackled by CERN also requires the world’s greatest minds – and these minds are not concentrated in a single country or continent. The data gathered by CERN's equipment is enormous, and, as noted on their website: “cooperation between nations, universities and scientists is the driving force behind CERN’s research.”

South Africa and CERN collaboration

South African scientists, through the SA-CERN collaboration, participate in several key research programmes at CERN, including the ALICE and ATLAS detectors at the LHC, as well as experiments at the Isotope Mass Separator On-line Facility. In 2018 South Africa celebrated 10 years of partnership between the SA physics community and CERN. South African researchers have contributed to major breakthroughs at the global facility, including the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, according to the programme founder and current Vice Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) Professor Zeblon Vilakazi. And despite our status as a lower-middle income country, South African papers in the sub-fields of nuclear, particle and field physics were between 2,5 and 3 times the global average.

This partnership saw some notable triumphs in 2021 too as SA PhD student, Humphry Tlou, from the small town of Mokopane in Limpopo, and presently in his second year doctoral studies in physics at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), was awarded the ATLAS PhD grant which aims to encourage and support high-calibre doctoral students in particle physics research from all over the world. In addition, Professor Bruce Mellado, senior scientist at the National Research Foundation’s iThemba LABS was, in May this year, elected Chairperson of the Institutional Board of the Tile Calorimeter of the ATLAS Experiment.

“This appointment is in recognition of the growing role of South Africa at CERN, which has established itself as a world class community of scientists,” he said at the time of the announcement.

South Africa also provides infrastructural support to CERN through the Centre for High-Performance Computing (CHPC) in Cape Town which is home to the fastest supercomputer in Africa. The CHPC supports large-scale science projects including the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and CERN, in which it runs over 2 000 jobs a day for the ALICE project.

NRENs as the foundation of global collaboration

This kind of global collaboration is largely possible because of the work of the national research and education networks (NRENs) around the world. The scientific equipment at CERN produces data on a massive scale, and often hundreds of researchers around the world then set about trawling through that data to look for points of significance or clues that may unlock the secrets of the universe.

This means that large volumes of raw data need to be transported globally as scientists collaborate.

“CERN is a good example of the bandwidth and connectivity needs for research and education,” says Shukri Wiener, head of network engineering at TENET. “The datasets that need to be transported are often large, and can require large amounts of bandwidth for short bursts as data gets sent. And this can happen at quite short notice.”

For this reason, there exists a global network of regional research and education networks (RRENs), UbuntuNet in South-East Africa, GÉANT in Europe, and Asia-Pacific Advanced Network (APAN) in Asia and so on. In addition to these, each country is home to a national research and education network (NREN) which ensures both internal and external connectivity of research and education networks within that country. It is through these networks, be they regional, or country-to-country, that research institutions will connect to share data.

In practice what this means is that while researchers based in Geneva and Johannesburg will be in contact over a scientific collaboration, sharing data and tools and techniques that process that data, often so too will network engineers of the relevant NRENs also be in contact to create a specific path and send the data across. This is also not the only behind-the-scenes NREN support researchers enjoy without necessarily knowing where it comes from. Trust and Identity teams in universities and NRENs work together to ensure a researcher can seamlessly log into remote infrastructure using federated credentials from their home institution.

This infrastructure support, while mostly invisible, allows not only for the access of South African researchers into global scientific collaborations such as those conducted at CERN, but also plays an important role in building human capital in South Africa. The skills and capacity built through this collaboration certainly contributed to the success of South Africa’s bid for the Square Kilometre Array project, but also has other immeasurable positive impact for the growth and development of South Africa and the continent.

Image source: CERN ATLAS experiment.

Event display of a H -> 2e2mu candidate event with m(4l) = 122.6 (123.9) GeV without (with) Z mass constraint. The masses of the lepton pairs are 87.9 GeV and 19.6 GeV. The event was recorded by ATLAS on 18-Jun-2012