South Africa is a great opportunity for growth and for a scientist to have a tangible impact on society.
This is some of the reasons that have brought Australian-born particle physicist, Associate Professor Bruce Mellado, to South Africa and to the School of Physics at Wits University 18 months ago. In the short time he has been here, he has successfully established the High Energy Physics Group that is already contributing strongly to the University’s research output pool.
“We like to publish,” he says proudly. “The group has submitted eight papers to various international and South African journals in the past six months, and we have recently submitted 25 abstracts of proceedings to the South African Institute of Physics Conference – some of them with input from our undergraduates.”
Mellado obtained his PhD from Columbia University in the US and with his association with the Higgs boson discovery, Mellado has brought valuable research output experience and knowledge to Wits and the country.
He is an expert on the Higgs boson – a sub-atomic particle that is thought to give matter its mass – and was a leading participant in its discovery that was announced in 2012 and led to the Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded in 2013 to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs. Mellado has been part of the ATLAS Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, since 2001.
He introduced the classification of the Higgs boson according to the multiplicity of quarks and gluons. This methodology has become standard in Higgs boson searches and played an important role in the announcement of the discovery. Several of his papers have been cited by the ATLAS experiment at CERN, including novel ideas that were used for the discovery of the particle. Few experimentalists in the field achieve this level of recognition. Mellado has also been invited by the CERN Director of Research and Computing to become a member of the LHeC Coordination Group – a future accelerator and detector facility at CERN to collide electrons head-on with the protons and heavy ions of the LHC.
He strongly believes scientists should also have a strong sense of social responsibility. “Innovation is the engine that drives development, and if a society wants to be self-sustainable and prosperous, it needs scientists to do research, innovate and develop.”
“When it comes to research, the University, the country and funding agencies have the right attitude and they understand the needs of South Africans and how to connect with those needs. There is a strong effort on the side of the National Research Foundation and the Department of Science and Technology to overcome the country’s difficulties. There is an atmosphere of enthusiasm here – despite the difficulties, there are prospects and that is something one does not really see in many other places nowadays,” he adds.
It is for this reason that Mellado is passionate about launching the Massive Affordable Computing (MAC) project. The MAC will be a poster project of how to connect a world ventured by only a few, very intelligent individuals and a society with a desperate need to connect its citizens with the global technological evolution. After few months of preparation the MAC project was launched in August 2013. Today Wits already has the capabilities for designing and producing electronics prototypes in collaboration with local industry.
“We live in a world where everything is interfaced by computers. The upgrade of the Large Hadron Collider and the study of the Higgs boson particle require a magnitude increase of data flows. The MAC project is connected to the research needs of particle physics and that is to find a technological way to solve the problem of Big Data. We have to do that in a way that is affordable to the country and that can generate spin-offs that will help us to develop cheap computers for South Africans – which would be a technological breakthrough for the country.”
“I’m a firm believer that you cannot import forever and by developing and manufacturing our own affordable computers we can help overcome the country’s computing illiteracy. At the same time the MAC programme will help us address the needs for high energy physics through the design and production of high throughput computing systems.”
“And this is what I like most about South Africa – there is a lot of enthusiasm and people react positively to the challenge – let’s do things better, let’s be competitive, let’s be strong, let’s be productive,” Mellado says.
By Erna van Wyk