8 September 2008

Vato Kartvelishvili

Nationality: Georgian

Vato Karvelishvili

Vato Kartvelishvili credits his presence at CERN to a man he never met. George Chikovani, the first Georgian to come to CERN, despite the Iron Curtain in the early 1960s, is an inspiration to him. “He started it all, certainly from Georgian side,” says Vato. Inventor of the streamer chamber, his legacy lives on in ATLAS itself as many subdetectors are advanced models based on his design.

“He was the first Georgian to show up at CERN, and he died in 1968, so I was a schoolboy then – I never knew him,” Vato explains. “But I worked with one of his students and colleagues, Vladimir Roinishvili, and his son, Eugene, was my PhD student.”

When Vato started at university, the charm quark hadn’t yet been discovered. “I remember standing in the foyer of the university, reading about the discovery of the fourth quark in a newspaper,” he says, sense of wonder at the new-found charm still audible. “All the lecture courses were about three quarks!”

He met his wife, Marina, early in his academic career. She studied biophysics, and they were classmates at Tbilisi State University. They married when they were 20, just before earning their first degrees.

Fascinated with the new quark discovery, Vato decided to study it more closely in his masters and postgraduate; work, investigating J/ψ production. Unlike Chikovani, he stayed in the Soviet Union, defending his thesis at the Institute of High Energy Physics in Protvino in 1979. Research at Protvino pulled him far from his young family in Tbilisi.

“Technically, I haven’t done a PhD. What I did was an equivalent of PhD which is called Candidate of Sciences, back in Soviet Union,” says Vato.

During the 1980s, Vato was able to continue working in high energy physics at Protvino and at the High Energy Physics Institute within Tbilisi State University, founded by a group of Georgian physicists lead by Nodar Amaglobeli. Later, Vato became head of the LHC group of the Institute. “Georgia back then was part of a big, rich country which could afford a lot of high energy physics,” he recounts.

As the Soviet Union fell, so did funding. Vato began, like many Georgian high energy physics researchers, to fund his work by taking on a day job. “Everything was falling apart,” Vato recalls. “I had to feed my family, and there was no time to be picky.” Working with friends, he designed software and hardware for small firms and later worked as a driver and interpreter for foreign companies. But after work and taking his children to school and other activities, very little time remained to work on physics.

“I really admire their heroic efforts,” he says of those researchers, including a few ATLAS colleagues, who have continued on that path. Vato sought other opportunities, visiting CERN in 1993. In 1995, he was hired as a temporary lecturer for Manchester University in the UK, moving to Lancaster on a permanent lectureship six years later.

Now that he’s working at CERN for Lancaster University, with his family living in Manchester, time apart is still long. However the World Wide Web and Easyjet help make the world smaller, and the distance is much easier than when he was in Protvino. “Back in those days, I could hardly talk to them over phone once a week,” Vato recounts, “That was a huge achievement if I managed to talk to them for five minutes!”

He was on sabbatical until the beginning of the academic year, hoping to be around CERN for the LHC start-up, but each delay pushed the date closer to his return to Lancaster. While the sabbatical has technically finished, Lancaster University has allowed him to spend much of this academic year at CERN.

His work for ATLAS is split between developing electron tracking software for the Inner Detector and continuing to study J/ψ production. “Same old J/ψ production. Still don’t know how it’s produced, after all my efforts back in 1976!” Vato laughs.

Vato doesn’t have much spare time since he tends to work very hard while at CERN and then take an extended weekend to visit his family. When he was younger, he would spend six to eight weeks in Protvino and then two or three at home. Now, his breaks are shorter. After six weeks, maybe he gets a long weekend. However, through the wonders of video streaming, he and his family enjoy their favorite TV shows together through the Web.

“My wife stopped complaining a long time ago,” he says, laughing. Since she works part time, she compresses her work schedule so that she can occasionally spend a week with her husband in Geneva.

While he currently resides in Switzerland and the UK, Vato has not forgotten his Georgian roots. Every year, he and his family return for a few weeks, and Vato is in the habit of attending biannual conferences on high energy physics at Tbilisi State University and the Georgian Academy of Sciences. One such conference, in memory of George Chikovani, will take place in Tbilisi later this year.


    Katie McAlpine

    ATLAS e-News