An Unflagging Collaborator
Prof. YahYa Tayalati; an Intimate Profile
In the realm of experimental particle physics or high-energy physics, everything is oversized, sophisticated, and of course, expensive. A handful of countries can afford such large-scale infrastructures needed for running experiments in this field. Usually, developed countries or a consortium of them participate in the construction of the research infrastructure.
However, in 2017, thanks to the efforts of a dedicated physicist Morocco found a place among the leading countries that have a vital role in a large-scale international project: Cubic Kilometer Neutrino Telescope (KM3NET). The contribution of the Moroccan team, led by Prof. Yahya Tayalati from the University Mohammed V in Rabat, is not only for the scientific exploitation but also for the project construction, which is entirely new. That was for the first time that a Moroccan - and even African - team contributed to constructing a particle detector.
This unprecedented cooperation with the Moroccan team was partly due to Tayalati’s background with Antoine Kouchner, spokesperson for the Antares Collaboration and coordinator of the ORCA-KM3NET project in the 2000s. “I have known Prof. Tayalati for a very long time since he had come to France to do part of his studies during his doctoral thesis. This is how we met. We were both in the thesis together,” says Kouchner. The other reason behind this success was Tayalati’s doctoral thesis which he did on the ANTARES project – the KM3NET predecessor – at the same time with Kouchner. Then afterward, they parted ways, and each lived their own scientific adventures. However, they remained in contact, and the idea of this cooperation came to life through their connection.
Tayalati already had the right expertise on the ANTARES project that he had acquired during his doctoral stay in France. “I have started my career as an experimental high-energy physicist with a Ph.D. degree from the University of Mohammed First, Oujda, Morocco,” he says. At the time, he proposed a solution to one of the problems in neutrinos physics. The first group of Oujda that joined the collaboration did not participate in constructing the first ANTARES project. But they participated in analyzing data in a specific sector related to the research of new physics. “I have been involved in the early preparation and deployment of the ANTARES telescope, and my effort allowed Morocco to join this international collaboration in 2011 officially. Since then, several students graduated with the ANTARES project,” Tayalati says
The under-construction KM3NET research infrastructure, which will be deployed at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea at a depth of 3 kilometers, will host the next generation of neutrino detectors as part of a world effort to detect dark matter. This is the most important scientific collaboration in which Morocco was involved. “I convinced three universities in Morocco – The University Mohammed First in Oujda, The Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakesh, and my University in Rabat – to join KM3NET collaboration and to form an Astroparticle cluster in Morocco,” Tayalaty says.
Even before the ANTARES KM3NET, Tayalati had a great experience in working with extensive collaborations. After his thesis work, he began his career in ATLAS, one of the most significant collaborative efforts ever attempted in science, with over 5500 members, including physicists, engineers, technicians, students, and support staff worldwide. “My involvement with the ATLAS experiment at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) includes more than 20 years of my career,” he says. The complexity of the underground ATLAS detector requires a tremendous amount of effort from all members of the collaboration. Operating the apparatus, collecting the data, and analyzing them involve almost everybody in this collaboration to different degrees. Each member in ATLAS has a direct or indirect contribution to every scientific publication, which has nearly 3000 scientific authors. “In the end, you feel you are always contributing to the overall ATLAS achievements,” he says.
What Tayalati has been doing through his career is much different from his childhood dream about his future profession. “I was fascinated by airplanes; I dreamed of being a pilot one day,” he says. “Like all Moroccans from my generation, I used to spend all weekend playing with my friends until late hours outside my parents’ home.” With no internet, computer games, and smartphones, they have to invent proper games with basic tools. “Some concepts of physics have a major role in those games,” he remembers. His education started in a Quranic School where he learned the first basics of rigor and discipline, two essential qualities for being successful in science as a collective enterprise. Later, in primary school, he got drawn to scientific subjects, while he was mostly interested in mathematics in high school.
Tayalati comes from a working-class family in Morocco. His father was a miner in a coal mine. “It is a tough job. He pushed my siblings and me to work hard for a better job than he had. He was illiterate but very aware of the importance of education in self-promoting. My father and the nature of his job had a big impact on me,” he says. The first time Tayalati left the country was to attend a school at ICTP (Abdus Salam International center of theoretical Physics in Trieste).
The journey had a significant impact on his life and career. It happened during the preparation of his master’s degree in one of the prestigious laboratories of theoretical physics in Morocco, which was officially connected to the ICTP. “I was very impressed by both the work of Prof. Abdus Salam on the standard model and deeply influenced by his personality,” he says. Abdus Salam’s efforts in developing sciences in the Muslim world through the different mobility programs he established at ICTP were really inspirational to him. “This was one of the major motivations that pushed me to this field.” Abdus Salam (1926-1996), a Pakistani theoretical physicist, was the only Muslim scientist who won a Nobel Prize in physics.
Tayalati describes his efforts in teaching different aspects of high-energy physics to get more students interested in this field as his most important contribution. “I’m someone that as scientist, researcher, teacher, and parent, likes to combine all challenges and move and share my knowledge with my community for a better life,” he says. He decided to spend the monetary award of the Mustafa Prize helping his colleagues and student. “This award will come at the right time in my career to help me to get access to some materials that will be needed by the members of my group. And they will be proud to see it is going to be used for such purpose supporting the mobility of our Ph.D. students.”
In recent years, he participated in a global effort called “International Masterclasses,” aiming to prepare the next generation of researchers in high-energy physics. “Given that there is not enough information about research in the high-energy physics field, the Masterclasses usually present the first opportunity for high school students to be in direct contact with our activities,” he says. The program consists of an international day during which the more than 13 thousand 15-19 years old high school students in 60 countries come to one of about 225 nearby universities or research centers to learn what it is like being a particle physicist. “We have found that international Masterclasses usually raise a huge amount of interest among them, and many decide in the end to pursue this field,” he says
Tayalati says once he is done with research, he wants to spend time with his family. “I am proud and grateful for my family, my wife, and my kids who always support me spending hours on my research. They understand my challenges in this field and the time I devote to research and traveling outside the country. I’m grateful for their patience and support.” When it comes to his bucket list, the top priority is initiating a new collaboration. “I wish I had time to get together many scientists – theorists and experimentalists – in different fields of high-energy and Astroparticle physics to set common goals for fundamental research.”