Solving the Mysteries of Matter

Kétévi Assamagan has spent his whole professional life preparing to search for the unknown. From the time he received his doctorate in experimental nuclear and high-energy physics from the University of Virginia in 1995, Assamagan has dedicated his career to developing detectors and software to explore still-uncharted areas of particle physics. This exploration includes the search for dimensions beyond the familiar three; and the search for evidence of supersymmetry, which postulates that all the particles we are aware of -- protons, quarks, and so on -- have counterparts that have yet to be identified. The fruits of Assamagan's work may also some day shed greater light on the interaction between forces and matter.

Kétévi Assamagan (standing) with student, Jerry Vigil, at work during the summer of 2004. Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Assamagan currently pursues his quest for new knowledge about the universe at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York, where he participates in the ATLAS project. When construction is complete, ATLAS will be a super-sized detector used to determine what happens when beams of protons collide at extremely high energy.

No ordinary detector, ATLAS -- a collaboration of 1,800 physicists from over 150 universities and laboratories, and 34 countries -- is as large as a five-story building. It will be installed inside the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the flagship project now under construction at CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory, located near Geneva, Switzerland. Though LHC is not scheduled for completion until 2007, with experiments expected to begin the following year, Assamagan has been preparing for that day all of his life.

Far From Togo

Assamagan has come a long way from his humble beginnings in a small village in Togo on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa. He is the oldest of eight children born to a father who was a factory mechanic and an illiterate mother who stayed at home raising the children. "In Africa the fraction of people who can at least read and write is increasing with the younger generation, but in the generation of my parents there were a lot of people, especially women, who didn't go to school," said Assamagan.

Assamagan became multi-lingual early in life, speaking Ewe, his region's native tongue, at home, and French, the official language of Togo, in school. He is also fluent in Mina (a language spoken in the southeast of Togo) and English.

Declaring a Major

Students in Togo who are interested in going to college must declare a major very early, since the standard college admissions test they are required to take is weighted toward their stated area of academic interest. Few students are accepted into college because space is limited, and once admitted it is almost impossible to change a major, says Assamagan. Fortunately for Assamagan, he showed an early aptitude and interest in math, so selecting the math and physics track in high school was not difficult for him.

Not having had the opportunity himself, Kétévi's father encouraged his first-born son to continue on to the Université du Bénin, located in the capital city of Lomé, and the only college in the country of Togo. Although his grades were the best in his class in high school and were good enough to secure a coveted place at the university, he did not receive any scholarships until his last year in college. Nevertheless, his father paid for his college education and he graduated with a bachelor's degree in physics and chemistry in 1985. Not having enough money to continue his higher education, Assamagan taught physics in junior high school in Lomé for two years until, in 1987, he was able to secure an Exchange Visitor Scholarship from the U.S. Agency for International Development to study in the U.S.

His first stop was Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where he spent three months learning English. He then moved to Ball State University (Muncie, Indiana), where he obtained a master's degree in condensed matter physics. It was then that his scholarship ended. Although he was supposed to return to Togo, Assamagan wanted to do high-level research that would require a Ph.D., which was not available in his home country. He managed to extend his stay by procuring an assistantship at the University of Virginia. He stayed in the U.S., and continued his studies as a doctoral student.

After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, Assamagan went to work at the Jefferson Laboratory in Newport News, Virginia, a U.S. Department of Energy nuclear physics facility managed by the Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA). During this time Assamagan also held a postdoctoral position at Hampton University, a historically black institution -- a SURA member and ATLAS participant -- in nearby Hampton, Virginia. In 1998, Assamagan moved to Switzerland and spent three years working on ATLAS at CERN before moving to Brookhaven in 2001 to continue his work on the development of the massive detector.

Looking For the Higgs

One of ATLAS's jobs will be to try to identify Higgs particles. If Higgs particles exist, this could explain how other particles get their masses. To determine if they do exist -- and to answer many other questions in high-energy physics -- the LHC will propel protons on a collision course at energy levels intended to simulate the first moments of the Big Bang. The intention is to have them collide in the middle of ATLAS, which will measure what happens when this epic event occurs. The creation and scatter of particles will be detected, and the results will be used to elucidate some of the universe's many remaining secrets.

ATLAS consists of four major components. One is the inner tracker, which measures the paths of electrically charged particles after the collision. Wrapped around the tracker is a calorimeter, designed to measure the energy of those particles. And on the outer portion of ATLAS is the muon spectrometer, which measures the momentum of muon particles as they scatter from the collision. The fourth major element is a system of superconducting solenoid and air-core toroid magnets to bend the trajectories of charged particles.

Assamagan has been involved in the construction and testing of the muon spectrometer and the development of software for data acquisition and analysis. Currently, he serves as the coordinator for the development of physics analysis tools. These analysis tools look at the potential of what might be discovered once ATLAS goes to work. It examines basic questions such as, what areas of the entire physics spectrum (particles) should ATLAS experiments focus on? How do you search for them and how do you know when you see them? It will be up to physicists "to pick out interesting events that are likely to indicate the existence of supersymmetry, extra dimensions, black holes, and the like," said Assamagan.

The same drive that brought Assamagan from his village in Togo to a position of leadership in high-energy physics has continued to propel his work on ATLAS. What he finds as a result of his search for new knowledge in physics remains to be seen, but his passion for research and his standing as an excellent scientist of color is clearly visible.

Victor D. Chase is a freelance writer and may be reached at

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