by Claude Carignan
On February 2nd 2010, the First Announcement for IAU Symposium No, 277 (Tracing the Ancestry of Galaxies – on the Land of our Ancestors) to be held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso on December 13-17, 2010, was sent.
While enthusiastic responses were received, a message was also suggesting that we were organizing “scientific tourism” in Africa and even one department had already decided not to let their students and post-docs attend the conference. It was in fact a good thing that this person came forward since it gives us the opportunity to put this meeting in context.
As far as the science goes, I think the scientific rationale given speak for itself (see www.iaus277.org )
But the question to answer is why hold such a meeting in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, which on the Human Resources Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is classified 177/182 countries.
In fact, five years ago, I was asked (I didn’t get the idea, myself) by the Minister of Education and Research in Burkina Faso (who got his degree at the Université de Montréal) if I would like to come and set up an Astrophysics program at the Université de Ouagadougou that would eventually become a center of Excellence that could deserve the Western Africa sub-region. This is an approach now used in many fields. Since resources are limited, the idea is not to develop departments of everything everywhere but to develop a new research activity in one country that could then deserve the whole sub-region.
We define the program in 2006 and the Science Council of the University accepted it at the beginning of 2007. I got great support from my University in Montréal. However, one of the problems with teaching sciences in Africa is that usually the level of the courses is OK (most of the faculties get their formation in Europe) but the labs are empty. So we thought that if we were going to set up a program, we would also build a small Observatory (25cm + CCD + appropriate filters and computers) for teaching purposes such that the practical work could be done on that telescope.
The first undergraduate class was given at the end of 2007 to ~100 students and the teaching Observatory was inaugurated by the Prime Minister on November 26, 2007: http://astro.univ-ouaga.org/. The first graduate course (Msc) was given at the beginning of 2009 to ~20 students. A full graduate program with 8 courses has been set up. The idea is to provide (with the help of many colleagues from around the world) the teaching for 4-5 years while we are forming 4 Burkinabè PhD (2 have started in Montréal, 1 will be going this year to Université de Provence and hopefully another one to South Africa) that will then take over the program once their degree will be completed (they are assure to get a position at the University de Ouagadougou).
While data mining allows to get good data sets for thesis even when you don’t possess your own telescope, with the Marseille people, we submitted a project to the OAMP in order to move the Marly telescope (EROS project) from Chile to Burkina Faso. It was accepted in December 2008 and the Marly telescope was put in crates last October in La Silla. It left Valparaiso on October 31st, arrived in Tema, Ghana on December 15 and the container was unloaded last Friday in Ouagadougou. With the help of many people (especially UdeM, LAM & OHP people) we hope to have the refurbished telescope operational end of 2011. Collaborators from the LAM and the LAE (Laboratoire d’Astrophysique Expérimentale in Montréal) will provide state-of-the-art instrumentation. This will help forming the students in BF and not loosing them to northern countries, which often happens when they get their formation overseas. We are in the final stages of the drawings and are getting help from the World Bank to build the infrastructures. The only money missing is for the solar energy power and the geothermal air-cooling demanding much less power than the conventional systems (a class of engineers is working on the project in Montréal). Hopefully, we’ll soon find the money for this part.
The main reason to hold the meeting here is to mark the beginning of Astrophysics in Burkina Faso and the construction of the Research Observatory. For the people here, to receive 200-250 among the best Astrophysicists in the world is a great motivation. Parallel to the scientific meetings we are also organizing, during the week of the conference, public talks for the students, special workshops for secondary school students and Astronomical Exhibitions in a central location.
I hope this helps to put this meeting in the context of the project initiated 5 years ago.