University education and academic excellence in research and teaching are taken for granted in affluent Western nations. We are used to having a broad spectrum of institutes in any possible field that exist in our part of the world. In developing countries though higher education is still a rare resource for many. This is also true for the field of particle physics, which is why representatives of the European Laboratory for Particle Physics CERN have launched a private initiative to take the seeds of this basic discipline to Nepal in order to let it grow there.
Particle physics is foremost a matter for scientists. But particle physicists need communication experts and advocates to explain their findings to the broad public and at the same time to promote the benefits of research for the economy and society alike. The International Particle Physics Outreach Group (IPPOG), a network of scientists, experts for science didactics and communication specialists, is dedicated to this goal. They have two important target groups for their outreach efforts - teachers and pupils. The latter are the future generation of researchers.
Particle physics for developing countries
30 IPPOG members recently got together for a three-day conference at the “Deutsche Elektronen Synchrotron” DESY, one of the world’s leading accelerator centers located in Zeuthen close to Berlin, Germany. One of the workshops was dedicated to a question that may sound surprising at first: “How do you bring master classes in particle physics to developing countries?” Master classes provide layman with the opportunity to analyze original data from particle physics experiments under the guidance of experienced scientists. As a result the participants learn to better comprehend the research of particle physicists. IPPOG organizes “International Master classes” at 190 Universities and research institutes in 41 countries worldwide. For one day 10 000 young adults turn into particle scientists.
Master classes are an important tool for recruiting and supporting future talent in particle physics. But in some countries this goal is harder to reach than in others, as Abha Eli Phoboo, a 30-year old communications expert of Nepalese descent, made clear at the IPPOG workshop in Zeuthen. “There are only five Universities in all of Nepal. Only a few of them have a natural science department with research facilities and laboratories. Physics is taught at these Universities, but it is mostly theoretical physics whereas particle physics hardly attracts interest”, Phoboo said.
Mediator between two worlds
Phoboo is at home in both worlds. She spent the first 22 years of her life in Nepal, where she attended school, studied English literature and worked as a journalist for six years. She then left for the USA, got a degree in creative studies at universities in Oklahoma and Massachusetts and married a physicist. In 2012 she joined CERN where she now works on the team that is responsible for the highly acclaimed CERN-website. She writes about ATLAS, one of the four big experiments at the particle accelerator LHC, which means she is following top level research in a scientific field that is practically unknown in her country of origin.
Abha Eli Phoboo´ss familiarity with both cultures makes her a perfect mediator between them. Last year she started to establish contacts with Nepalese universities. In December 2013 she visited the University of the Nepalese capital Kathmandu, a city of one million people. There, for the first time ever, she conducted a master class in particle physics, together with a group of supporters. “The interest was enormous. The participants had so many questions that we almost missed our bus in the end”, Phoboo remembers with a smile.
Making it possible for physicists to stay in their native countries
Like master class participants in other countries the Nepalese participants received an introduction to particle physics, then analyzed the data of the particle accelerator LHC and finally discussed the topic in a video conference with scientists at CERN. “This live video conference provided the chance for the participants to get a glimpse of the world of physics research, a world they had never seen before and that opened up a completely new perspective to them”, Phoboo reported. Even though the University of Kathmandu is equipped with computers for the Master class-analysis this does not mean that the infrastructure always works. “Unfortunately Kathmandu has to deal with regular blackouts”, the communication expert reports.
Travelling or studying abroad is unaffordable for most Nepalese students. Those who leave the country are likely to never return – with the logical negative consequences for Nepal´s technological development. Phoboos long term goal is therefore to build up a PhD-program in particle physics in Nepal and make the country more attractive for scientists. The master class in Kathmandu was the first step along this way. A second is about to follow in June 2014. Amongst others, a teacher from a Nepalese village will participate in the teacher-training of CERN.
A long way to go
I am aware that it will be a very long process to bring particle physics to Nepal”, says Abha Eli Phoboo. “It will probably be a decade before Nepal will be a member state of CERN. But we have taken the first step in this direction.”
Text Benedikt Vogel (published 20. 5. 2014, translated into English by Petra Krimphove)