by Polly Bennett. Published: 16 December 2011

In Neolithic Dobruja, a region near the Black Sea occupying parts of modern day Romania and Bulgaria, a rich culture sculpted figures from clay. A pair of these figures, called The Thinkers, depict two people deep in thought. Dr. Mihai Petrovici, from Romania’s National Institute for Physics and Nuclear Engineering (IFIN-HH) in Bucharest, explains that “humans are the only creatures that ask basic questions about our origin and what there is beyond what we can see around us.” The Thinkers, crafted by a people who had newly discovered the benefits of an organised community, are thought to represent this very idea. “To answer these complex questions we have to embark on huge international collaborations such as we are doing at CERN.” Mihai is the head of the Hadron Physics Department at IFIN-HH. He uses The Thinkers to explain that in the same way his native Neolithic communities had to collaborate to adopt a more complex existence, so modern day countries must collaborate to answer the questions we have been asking since these ancient times. He continues, “The question for us in Romania is: as a small country are we able to bring a real contribution to this unbelievable endeavour? I think the answer is yes.”

Joining the EU only in relatively recent years, Romania has had to fight hard to make a contribution to the European nuclear and particle physics. At IFIN-HH tenacious persistence drove such research. They reached a climax when they joined ALICE in 1999 and contributed to the research and development (R&D), construction and installation of sections of the Transition Radiation Detector (TRD) of the ALICE experiment. Mihai explains that “we are not the third world but we obviously had some problems with the Communist regime. However, we did manage to conduct some particle physics in the last 60 years.” This is perhaps because IFIN-HH was founded, in 1949, as a western-style national institute of research by Horia Hulubei, a PhD student of the Curie family who studied in western research centres such as Paris. He came home to Romania retaining a western philosophy of scientific research.

Mihai Petrovici

Dr. Mihai Petrovici

IFIN-HH began nuclear research with a Russian-type research reactor. “This was the case in all socialistic countries at the time” explains Mihai. They went on to build a cyclotron, followed by a tandem accelerator in the 1970s. The mid 1980s saw the building of an experimental device which looked at dissipative heavy ion reactions. It was called, rather brilliantly, DRACULA, an acronym for Device for Reaction Analysis based on a Complex and Unsurpassed on-Line Acquisition system. Although collaboration with GSI, in Germany, helped to complete the development of DRACULA, the end of the Communist regime in the late 1980s was accompanied by problems such as electricity cuts. “It was impossible to produce enough power for post acceleration activities and so it was never used in house.” Eventually, after the 1989 Romanian Revolution, IFIN-HH was able to collaborate with LNS-Catania in Italy, where DRACULA was installed. “We produced good data from dissipative processes in light heavy ion collisions for 8 years, complementing the work done at GSI at that time.”

Other projects followed and this experience gave IFIN-HH the background to join ALICE. “We were involved with the R&D for the TRD. The first prototype was tested at GSI and we contributed largely to the motherboard and electronics design.”

The TRD is composed of 540 modules covering an area of around 750m2. The enormous task of constructing these modules was shared between the institutes that had contributed to the R&D. After setting up a high-standard detector lab, IFIN-HH produced about 24% of the TRD sub-detector and the production of the entire detector was finished in 2008. At this time, Mihai’s PhD students Cristian Andrei and Andrei Herghelegiu were in the third year of their physics degree. They, and others in the group, completed all the winding of the multi-wire electrodes for the TRD chambers. Cristian comments that they have not finished with the TRD yet, “We will be installing new TRD super-modules during the next shutdowns.”

Mihai’s group also set up grid activities for analysing data taken by ALICE. This became the first international grid application in Romania, in 2003. Their equipment was initially very modest, but they now have a centre with more than 2000 cores and a little over 1 petabyte of storage. “We have the infrastructure to maintain a 24/7 data centre. It has quite high efficiency in the ALICE grid and contributes to an average of about 8%.” Mihai’s next hope is that they can contribute more to the actual physics. They are currently analysing data evidencing collective phenomena in proton-proton collisions at 7 TeV for high multiplicity and nearly azimuthal isotropic events.

IFIN-HH is expanding their international presence all the time. Recent extensions and renovations to their main buildings, detector labs, electronic labs and conference hall will allow their research to expand and provide them with spaces to host colleagues from other universities more easily. Mihai also proposes the need for outreach activities for the Romanian general public, and international events and workshops where colleagues from collaborating institutions may come to discuss their work. “It’s much, much easier to come here and work at CERN rather that stay home and build up our infrastructure. But it’s not the right long range strategy.” Next year IFIN-HH will host a European/International Nuclear Physics conference in Bucharest.

However, Mihai stresses that their efforts to improve the infrastructure and contribution to nuclear and particle physics has to be officially recognised in order to maintain international and home support. “I promote the idea of a European Network of Excellence in the Long Range Plan of the Nuclear Physics European Collaboration Committee. If proposals and ideas remain only on a piece of paper they will not be very helpful. We are now a member of the EU, and there must be a kind of international scrutiny of our activities which could act as an evaluation for our own government to financially support local activities. From 2003 science in general was getting more money from the government but whether this was or is actually distributed fairly is another question. But now the Romanian government is forced to apply European rules and all national programmes launched undergo the international scrutiny we need.”

Mihai has lived through the changes in Romania. However Cristian Andrei entered the academic arena after the Revolution, when life was more stable. One might expect him to feel the shadow of these former events but he says, “when I started in 2004 it was after these financial issues and after all that really hard work to get Romania somewhere in science. Our high standard detector lab had just been finished and we had just started building the TRD chambers there. Of course there is a difference in the general infrastructure between here and western institutes, but at the specific level of equipment and the scientific atmosphere there isn’t any difference. I couldn’t feel any difference between what you can do there and what you can do at our department in Bucharest. I would say we have the same possibilities.”