SA soon to be part of giant European particle collider computer network

15th August 2014 By: Keith Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

South Africa will join the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG) in December. The WLCG processes and stores the immense amounts of data produced by the world’s biggest and most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is an instrument of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (much better known by its French acronym, CERN).

Currently, the WLCG comprises almost 160 sites in 35 countries with about 250 000 computing cores. The central computing facility at CERN, in France (on the Swiss border), is designated the Tier 0 centre. It is supported by very sophisticated Tier 1 centres and sophisticated Tier 2 centres. South Africa will most probably host a new Tier 2 centre.

South Africa’s cooperation with CERN has developed to such a degree that the next logical step would be for the country to apply for associate membership of the international research agency. The two sides have been collaborating for about 25 years now.

“It’s really developed quickly and it hasn’t stopped developing,” stated CERN deputy head of international relations Professor Emmanuel Tsesmelis. “Also, the collaboration is broad. It covers science, engineering and education. I think the [South African] government is very supportive. We will be discussing the future of this collaboration soon. There are some wonderful researchers in South Africa in all the fields of cooperation with CERN. There is commitment from the [South African] scientific community and government.”

Although CERN was founded (in 1954) as a European agency, since 2010, both full and associate membership have been open to any country in the world. Associate membership is a necessary precondition to full membership, but a country can opt to remain an associate member and not become a full member. Full membership is significantly more expensive than associate membership, but brings significantly greater benefits.

“All the ingredients are in place in South Africa for associate membership,” he observed. “Part of the return of associate membership is industrial involvement: local industry building equipment for projects at CERN. Of course, the industry in the country concerned must have the capability to produce such equipment – this is a prerequisite for a country to obtain associate membership. With its experience on the MeerKAT [radio telescope array] and other projects, South Africa would be a strong candidate for associate membership, should it chose to apply.”

Cooperation between South Africa and CERN began in the early 1990s and focused on capacity building, particularly training young scientists. In 1992, the two sides signed a bilateral agreement to develop science and technology cooperation. “This has indeed happened,” he noted. Then, in 2008, came the signing of a bilateral collaboration agreement, covering the development and funding of South African involvement in specific projects at CERN.

Currently, a number of South African institutions are involved in a number of CERN projects. The iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Based Sciences (iThemba LABS) is collaborating with CERN on hadron therapy for the treatment of cancer. And then there are the collaborations regarding LHC experiments. Since 2001, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and iThemba LABS, recently joined by the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), have been participants in the Alice experiment. Wits and the University of Johannesburg, subsequently joined by UCT and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (in Durban), are members of the Atlas experiment. Atlas and Alice are two of the most important experiments on the LHC. Atlas researchers were responsible for the discovery of the Higgs boson, the particle that is believed to give mass to matter.

Tsesmelis made a presentation to a plenary session of the recent 2014 South African Institute of Physics conference. The conference was hosted by the University of Johannesburg.