Applied physics ‘bankrolls’ fundamental research

​​TEN years ago, the University of Johannesburg’s department of physics had five academic and three support staff, says Prof Andre Strydom, head of department​


Published on Business Day: 08 October 2012

​”There are now 30 members of staff spread across two campuses. Word has spread: there is support here for research.” Physics is sometimes divided into “blue-sky” or fundamental research, and applied.

“A number of people in this department are only concerned with fundamental research. What does the Higgs boson mean to someone building a house out there? Nothing,” Prof Strydom says.

The Higgs boson is a previously theoretical fundamental particle that scientists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) announced traces of earlier this year. The Higgs is thought to give matter its mass.

Although South Africans have been working with Cern since 2002, the country only officially joined as a collaborator thanks to Department of Science and Technology funding in 2007-08. The University of Johannes-burg is one of the collaborating institutions.

However, Simon Connell, a professor in the university’s department of physics, says applied physics is important to bankroll fundamental research.

“If we want science to be sustainable, we have to pay attention to realising innovation…. The government funds things if they deliver on good research, capacity building and innovation. If you take any one of those three away, it becomes less attractive,” he says.

Prof Connell says that about half of his research involves the ATLAS experiment — the largest on the Large Hadron Collider, involving about 3,000 scientists from 172 institutes in 37 countries, which is investigating the Standard Model of physics — at Cern. But he also has a strong focus on the applied side, with patents pending on a machine that can visualise diamonds in kimberlite rock, without having to cut into it.

“The machine that visualises diamond in rocks would not have been possible without our involvement in Cern…. I prefer fundamental physics,” he says, “but we funded the fundamental from applied (research) for 10 years before the government started to fund it. We wouldn’t have gotten where we are without the applied research.”

Prof Strydom, who is a rated researcher and was the university’s top researcher in 2010 based on research output, says, “In science, if you are prepared to work hard, you will get rewards and awards…. At the National Research Foundation, you have to be very good at fundamental research if you want to get funding.” He studies condensed matter physics, finding out what happens to matter when you remove nearly all energy from it.

Even inside solid matter — your desk, for example — on an atomic level, the particles are moving. Prof Strydom describes his research in terms of a car: “If smoke is coming out of your car and you can (take) it to a mechanic, he will ask you to switch off the engine and will leave it overnight (for) the engine to cool down. There is no use (trying to diagnose the problem) when the engine is hot — it must cool down to its real state first.”

It is the same thing in condensed matter physics — cooling matter to near absolute zero, about -273°C — and then adding tiny bits of energy to see what happens.

One of Prof Strydom’s main areas of research within this field is “phononic excitation”. “If you remove all (movement of particles) at low temperatures and then add tiny bits of energy, the whole lattice (the structure of matter) begins to correspond in a collective manner,” he says.

In other words, all the particles start behaving in the same way in terms of spin and movement. This has implications for superconductors and material magnetism.

But for Prof Strydom the focus is fundamental research.

“We need to highlight the importance of fundamental research to funding agencies. China is going to be streaks ahead of us because they are throwing money at fundamental research.”

However, a great deal of Prof Strydom’s funding gets channelled through international collaboration, as he cites long-standing partnerships with the Vienna University of Technology, the Max Planck Institute and the Isis Facility at the University of Oxford. Prof Connell also highlights the importance of international co-operation, particularly between South Africa and Cern.

“Looking for the Higgs boson is incredibly esoteric. Nonetheless, it is a highly competitive environment,” he says.

This is a good environment for South Africans to be a part of because “if a student doesn’t do something, another student will jump up to do it”.

“It teaches you the habits of a successful physicist,” he says.​​​

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