24 April 2014

Big lessons from tiny particles

Particle physicist Shih-Chang Lee says that his election as a TWAS Fellow shows that Taiwan, China, is achieving international standards in science.

Shih-Chang Lee, one of TWAS's 52 recently elected Fellows, led the Taiwan team part in the recent discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. Lee, of the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, China, is also closely tied to the discovery nearly two decades ago of another particle, the top quark.

Lee said people of his age in Taiwan were told the story of 1957 physics Nobel laureates (and TWAS co-founders) Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee in elementary school, and at that time "the best students always went into particle physics." He travelled down that path in life, and became part of the Taiwanese team in an international collaboration in particle physics with the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) in the United States in 1993.

At that time, particle physicists were hunting for the top quark. Quarks are the elementary particles that make up protons and neutrons, and types of quarks come in pairs. The most common quarks are called either up or down quarks, and when you have two of one and a third of the other, you get either a proton or a neutron. For example, two up quarks and one down quark make a proton.

But there are also higher tiers of quark pairs that are heavy, unstable, and decay quickly. The second tier is the strange and charm quarks. In the 1970s, another quark called the bottom quark had been discovered, but it was missing the partner predicted by theoretical physics, the extremely unstable top quark. "The top quark is very, very heavy. As heavy as a gold nucleus," said Lee. The only way to find it was to slam particles into each other at high speeds and watch for the reaction. "Essentially, you squeeze a lot of energy into a small point, and you see how this energy turns particles."

In the early 1990s, evidence for the top quark began to build, until finally physicists at both CERN and the DZero experiment at Fermilab found it in 1995.

More recently, Lee worked with the ATLAS experiment at CERN, one of two detectors that contributed to finding the elusive Higgs boson that excited the physics world and the general public last year. The Higgs boson decays so fast that it is impossible to detect directly, but its decay generates other particles that physicists can spot to infer its existence. The Taiwanese team at CERN developed methods to help pick up the signal from the decaying Higgs and actively participated in the effort to find it.

"I'm glad I was elected [to TWAS]," said Lee. "I have been working in Taiwan for 30 years now and I think it shows that the admission through Academia Sinica is up to a certain kind of international standard."

* * *

Every year TWAS elects dozens of scientists who have taken great strides in advancing their chosen fields as TWAS members. Some of them live and work in the developing world and some are researchers in developed countries whose efforts contribute to scientific growth the South. Candidates for membership are nominated and evaluated by established members, and then elected from a short-list each year by panels of members at the TWAS General Meeting.

At the 2013 General Meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, they elected 52 new members, raising the total membership to 1,110. Of the new members, 12 are from India, 11 are from Brazil, nine are from China, four are from Taiwan, China, and two are from Vietnam. One each was elected from Australia, Azerbaijan, Benin, Ethiopia, France, Japan, Kenya, Pakistan, South Korea, Tanzania, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States and Venezuela. Six of the 52 new members are women. Regionally, 29 are from developing countries in Asia, 11 from Latin America, 3 from Sub-Saharan Africa, and none are from the Arab Region.

  • Section 1, Agricultural Sciences: Ricardo Antunes de Azevedo of Brazil; Zeyaur Rahman Khan of India; Papa Abdoulaye Seck of Senegal; and Zhu Yuxian of China.
  • Section 2, Structural, Cell and Molecular Biology: Soo-Chen Cheng of Taiwan, China; Takashi Gojobori of Japan; Tao-Shih Hsieh of Taiwan, China; Helena B. Nader of Brazil; and Jayant Udgaonkar of India.
  • Section 3, Biological Systems and Organisms: Anwar Gilani of Pakistan; Jitendra Paul Khurana of India; Luiz Drude de Lacerda of Brazil; Lee Sang Yup of Republic of Korea; and Raman Sukumar of India.
  • Section 4, Medical and Health Sciences including Neurosciences: Abraham Aseffa of Ethiopia; Mauricio L. Barreto of Brazil; Kathryn Song Eng Cheah of Malaysia; Yuk Ming Dennis Lo of China (winner of TWAS's 2012 Ernesto Illy Trieste Science Prize); Narinder Kumar Mehra of India; and Viswanathan Mohan of India.
  • Section 5, Chemical Sciences: Christian Amatore of France; Vanderlan da Silva Bolzani of Brazil; Pratim Kumar Chattaraj of India; Xiao-Ming Chen of China; Song Gao of China; Martyn Poliakoff of the United Kingdom; and He Tian of China.
  • Section 6, Engineering Sciences: Ali Abbasov of Azerbaijan; Chennupati Jagadish of Australia; Anurag Kumar of India; Ranjan Kumar Mallik of India; Mei Hong of China; and Bhim Singh of India.
  • Section 7, Astronomy, Space and Earth Sciences: Eduardo Luiz Damiani Bica of Brazil; Alexander Wilhelm Armin Kellner of Brazil; Shaw Chen Liu of Taiwan, China; Evelyne Isaack Mbede of Tanzania; David Ruffolo of Thailand; and Sreedharan Krishnakumari Satheesh of India.
  • Section 8, Mathematical Sciences: Artur Oscar Lopes of Brazil; Quoc-Khanh Phan of Vietnam; Hoang Xuan Phu of Vietnam; and Ivan Shestakov (Chestakov) of Brazil.
  • Section 9, Physics: Nathan Berkovits of Brazil; Adalberto Fazzio of Brazil; Anamaría Font of Venezuela; Shih-Chang Lee of Taiwan, China; Juan Martin Maldacena of the United States; Deepak Mathur of India; and Bao-Gen Shen China.
  • Section 10, Social and Economic Sciences: Kaushik Basu of India; and Jikun Huang of China.

– Sean Treacy


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