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In Memoriam: Edmund C. Zingu April 26, 2013

Posted by International.Chair in : Condensed Matter and Materials Physics (CMMP), History, Policy and Education (HPE), Physics Education Research (PER), Technology Transfer, Business Development and Entrepreneurism (TBE) , 2comments

Zingu
Professor Edmund Zingu served on the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP) Council from 1999 to 2006, and was President of the SAIP from 2003 to 2004.  He was in fact the first black President in the history of the SAIP[1].

He played crucial leadership roles in many projects, particularly in physics related development issues.  He was Vice President of the IUPAP, and Chair of the C13 Commission on Physics for Development.  He was primarily responsible for bringing to South Africa the iconic ‘Physics for Sustainable Development’ conference in 2005[2] as a part of the International Year of Physics.  This conference cast a distinct spotlight on physics as an instrument for development in Africa.

We would like to specifically mention his tremendous contribution to two extremely important projects of the Institute.  The first was the highly successful Shaping the Future of Physics, where he contributed to the design of the project and also served as chair of the Management and Policy Committee that oversaw the international review in 2003.

The Shaping the Future of Physics in South Africa report was written by a body designated as the ‘International Panel’ or IP.  The IP was composed of M. A. Hellberg (convenor), M. Ducloy, K. Bharuth-Ram, K. Evans-Lutterodt, I. Gledhill, G. X. Tessema, A.W. Wolfendale, and S. J Gates.  The report has served exceedingly well as a national strategy and planning document for the South African physics community in a manner that none of its authors had foreseen in terms of its scope, duration or effectiveness.

Dr. Zingu’s management of the entire Shaping process was a marvelous testament of his dedication to the health of the physics field in South Africa.  His skills as a manager of personnel were on direct display in the assembly of the IP.  He advocated for selection of representatives from South Africa (Bharuth-Ram, Gledhill, and Hellberg), from Europe (Ducloy, and Wolfendale), and the USA (Evans-Lutterodt, Gates, and Tessema) as a reflection of his understanding of the global nature of the interactions required for physics to thrive in South Africa in the new millennium.  He also saw to it that the IP was assembled in such a way as to be a final executive part of the process that lived up to his high expectation and vision.

The Shaping Report is among the greatest of tributes to Dr. Zingu as it continues almost a decade later to have a substantial impact on thinking about South African physics.  The report challenged all of the stake-holding communities to plan on multiple levels.  Projects like the projects like the SAIP Executive Office, National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NiTheP), South African National Research Network (SANReN), SA-CERN, and SKA-Africa have become a reality.  The report called also for the possibility of other ‘flagship’ projects such as a South African synchrotron, to drive the large scale development of the field, and there has been significant encouraging progress here.  At the more granular level there was a call for transformation so that the field would be open to all citizens of the country.  Physics in South Africa has grown significantly since then, largely because of the implementation of many of the recommendations from the Review.  Also during this time Dr. Zingu authored the very influential article, Promoting Physics and Development in Africa, which appeared in Physics Today[3].

For one of us (Gates), the Shaping Report was preparation for service as a policy advisor for both the Governor of Maryland (via my role on the Maryland State Board of Education) and for President Barack Obama (via my role on the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology – PCAST).  These accomplishments are due in part to Edmund’s confidence in me and his abilities as a mentor.  I owe this great South African an enormous debt of gratitude for how he challenged me to grow professionally.

The second project was the Review of Undergraduate Physics Education.  Once again he contributed to the design of the Review and chaired the Management and Policy Committee.  He led the development of the South Africa Draft Benchmark Statement for Physics Training, and guided the Review process, including the partnership with the Council for Higher Education.  The Review of Physics Training is well advanced but still in progress.

Professor Zingu began his physics career at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).  He was a materials physicist, and with his collaborators at Cornell University invented a new method to study atomic diffusion by transmission electron microscopy[4].  Later he studied diffusion phase transitions in thin films due to induced thermal stress[5].  He had a period of employment at Turfloop, QwaQwa Campus, then as Head of the Physics Department and later Dean of Basic Sciences (1990-1993) at MEDUNSA.  He later returned to UWC and served as Head of the Physics Department (1994-1998), and finally Vice Rector of Mangosuthu University of Technology in Umlazi, Durban until the time of his retirement.

Edmund was a pioneer for physics in post-apartheid South Africa, a visionary, a tireless campaigner for strengthening the discipline of physics* and, above all, a true gentleman.  His leadership and contributions were characterized by sensitivity, perceptiveness, vision, ethics, wisdom, global standards and great industry.  He will be sorely missed.

Simon Connell
President, South African Institute of Physics (2012-2014)

Nithaya Chetty
President, South African Institute of Physics (2007-2009)

S. James Gates, Jr.
President, National Society of Black Physicists (1996-1998)

More comments from Dr. Zingu’s friends and colleagues

Professor Zingu was a dear friend and professional colleague over the past ten years.  He was extremely helpful during the deliberations of the 2004 Review of iThemba LABS that I chaired for the National Research Foundation.  During that time, Professor Zingu was President of the South African Institute of Physics.  In another effort, he was one of the main drivers in working with Professor Alfred Msezane of Clark Atlanta University and a number of us at the African Laser Centre to organize the 1st US-Africa Advanced Studies Institute on Photon Interactions with Atoms and Molecules.  That institute convened in Durban during November 2005, just after the World Conference on Physics and Sustainable Development, which was part of the United Nation’s International Year of Physics.  Professor Zingu leaves a tremendous legacy for all African and other peoples to emulate.  We will miss his kind demeanor and tremendous insights into the future.
Sekazi K. Mtingwa

I met Prof. Edmund Zingu nearly 20-years ago in November 1995 at the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town, where he was Chair of the Physics Department. Edmund invited me on my first travel to South Africa for nearly two-weeks to  lecture on Ultrafast Optical Phenomena at several institutions — U. of Port Elizabeth, the National Accelerator Centre, U. of Cape Town, U. of Witwatersrand, U. of the Western Cape and the Foundation for Research Development (analog of the US National Science Foundation). This was the first and only time that I spent time away from my family during Thanksgiving, and Edmund provided a warm and inviting environment for my visit. I spent several days with Edmund’s wonderful family and learned a great deal about South Africa and its people. Arriving not long after the release of Nelson Mandela and the official end of Apartheid, Edmund with his gentle, soft-spoken and brilliant nature alleviated my natural apprehension of visiting South Africa at that time. I had a truly wonderful visit and scientific exchange orchestrated by Prof. Edmund Zingu and I am truly saddened by the loss of this extraordinary individual — my deepest condolences go out to his family.
Anthony M. Johnson

Two weeks ago, at a diaspora gathering for STEM in Africa, the challenge that African scientists face on the continent was discussed. The critical question was “How can academics in Africa get the attention of the leaders?”  The idea of international advisory panels modeled after the 2004 Shaping panel was received with much enthusiasm. The composition of the panel, the charge to the panel, and the implementation was such a testimony of the high quality of the leadership of SAIP under Edmond Zingu. May he rest in peace.
Tessema G.X.

To this excellent tribute, I would like to add my personal sadness at the passing of a truly great South African, whose impact on my own life enabled me to transform to our new democracy.
Japie Engelbrecht

 


[1] Physics Today, Vol 54 (9) Sept 2001, p 27, http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.1420507

[2] Physics World, October 2005, pp 12-13, http://physicsworld.com/cws/archive/print/18/10

[3] Physics Today, Vol 57 (1) Jan 2004, p 37, http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.1650068

[4] Chen, S. H., L. R. Zheng, J. C. Barbour, E. C. Zingu, L. S. Hung, C. B. Carter, and J. W. Mayer. “Lateral-diffusion couples studied by transmission electron microscopy.” Materials Letters 2, no. 6 (1984): 469-476. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0167-577X(84)90075-2

Zingu, E. C., J. W. Mayer, C. Comrie, and R. Pretorius. “Mobility of Pd and Si in Pd2Si.” Physical Review B 30, no. 10 (1984): 5916. http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevB.30.5916

[5] Zingu, E. C., and B. T. Mofokeng. “Diffusional Phase Transformation under Induced Thermal Stress.” In MRS Proceedings, vol. 230, no. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1991. http://dx.doi.org/10.1557/PROC-230-145

Zingu, E. C., and B. T. Mofokeng. “Stress Relaxation During Diffusional Phase Transformation Under Induced Thermal Stress.” In Materials Research Society Symposium Proceedings, vol. 308, pp. 85-85. Materials Research Society, 1994. http://dx.doi.org/10.1557/PROC-308-85

Diale, M., C. Challens, and E. C. Zingu. “Cobalt self‐diffusion during cobalt silicide growth.” Applied Physics Letters, vol. 62, no. 9 (1993): pp 943-945. http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.108527

[6] P. Whitelock,  Tribute given at the Memorial Service for Prof Edmund Zingu held on 25 April 2013 at the University of the Western Cape

Dr. Kartik Sheth, ALMA, and SKA March 19, 2013

Posted by admin in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), Cosmology, Gravitation, and Relativity (CGR) , add a comment

by JC Holbrook

National Society of Black Physicists members Eric Wilcots and Kartik Sheth were part of a new initiative to foster radio astronomy collaborations with South African astronomers and students. Last week marked the official inauguration of ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, in the high altitude Atacama desert of Chile, South America. I was able to sit down with Dr. Sheth to discuss the broader issue of radio astronomy and South Africa.

“I think this celebration was the culmination of thirty years worth of work from a lot of different people. The inauguration of the array was a chance for us to celebrate how much hard work has gone into it.” Dr. Sheth said of the inauguration ceremony in Chile. “We started science operations September 30th of 2011. We have been collecting data for over two and a half years, because even with a small ALMA it is still the most powerful [millimeter/submillimeter] telescope in the world.”

Since ALMA is an array of dishes similar to the radio dishes of the Very Large Array in New Mexico, even during construction as each dish was put into place and connected, the astronomers were already using what was available to collect data. Thus, the months of science data collection with ALMA before the official inauguration.

I pointed out, “You were not even there!”

Dr. Sheth laughed, “Only the dignitaries were invited, so a lot of people from the political arena in the twenty-five plus countries that are part of ALMA. President Piñera inaugurated ALMA…For me it doesn’t mean much… but I’m kinda sad that I’m not there because I really wanted to be there. But I knew that I wasn’t going to be invited, so coming here [to South Africa] really was driven by the NASSP deadline for Master’s proposals.” NASSP is the National Astrophysics and Space Sciences Programme in South Africa. In 2010, I began writing a book about NASSP. The program is a dramatic success story about educating underrepresented groups in astrophysics and space sciences. NASSP include one honor year and a two year masters of science degree. Nearly all NASSP students are funded by the program.

Dr. Sheth explained, “The idea is to foster bridges between the faculty here that are taking on students who eventually want to work with MeerKat and SKA. But MeerKAT and SKA are not built, yet. So, what we would really like the faculty to do is to think about including radio data from existing telescopes and NRAO operates four of them.”

The SKA is currently under construction, yet the South African astronomy students need to learn everything about radio astronomy and the analysis of radio data. Dr. Sheth along with other American radio astronomers is here to encourage South African astronomers and their students the opportunity to learn by working with the existing facilities and their archival data. The four facilities are ALMA, the Robert C. Byrd Greenbank telescope a single dish in West Virginia, the Jansky Very Large Array (JVLA or EVLA) which is the enhanced VLA in New Mexico, and the Very Large Baseline Array (VLBA) which is spread across the Northern Hemisphere. Thus, the visit before the NASSP deadline for submitting Masters of Science thesis proposals. Dr. Sheth hopes that a few NASSP students will propose radio astronomy projects including using NRAO facilities for their Masters work.

According to Dr. Sheth the JVLA is the Northern Hemisphere equivalent of what MeerKat will be. MeerKat is the precursor to the SKA, the Square Kilometer Array.  It is a new state of the art radio observatory currently being built in South Africa. The SKA array itself will consist of 3000 dishes spread across nine African countries: South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Madagascar, Mauritius, Zambia, Ghana, and Kenya. The SKA Africa headquarters are in Cape Town, South Africa, and they will be coordinating all of the African construction. A question I thought would be uppermost in the minds of South Africans was: Will ALMA be competition for SKA?

His response, “No, not at all. ALMA operates at higher frequencies than what the SKA will operate at. They are not looking at the same part of the electromagnetic spectrum but they will be looking at the same type of objects. EVLA is a mini version of SKA. With the SKA, it will be observing thermal emission and synchrotron emission from sources…” In an email he added, “We are looking at electrons energy as they cool around star forming regions or zip around magnetic fields. So you can get a real idea of the magnetic field that pervades the Milky Way and with the SKA across cosmic time. ALMA cannot really look at atomic gas unless its at very high red shift (i.e. the lines are red shifted into the regime that ALMA can observe) and only using atomic gas tracers like ionized carbon, nitrogen, or oxygen. ALMA cannot look at the atomic hydrogen gas which is emitting in the wavelengths that MeerKat and SKA will work at. So SKA & Meerkat are looking at the atomic gas from which molecular gas forms. And the molecular gas is what ALMA looks at which from stars form. And the stars are what HST and JWST look at. So it is a nice transition.  Together these are giving you the full picture of what the universe looks like. Additionally there is a lot about magnetic fields and transient phenomena — these are also MeerKat and SKA’s core strengths. For instance, these will be excellent instruments for looking at the timing of pulsars.”

Trying to put it altogether I asked, “So, anything that is hot and has electrons moving around will be able to be studied by SKA?”

Kartik Sheth clarified, “No, I wouldn’t call it ‘hot’. The atomic gas is quite cold as well. It is hotter than the molecular gas but not hot compared to stars.”

As a student of astronomy, I had always had a fascination with the connection between wavelengths of light or color, physical properties, chemistry, and celestial bodies. Planetary nebulae, which are mentioned in my last Vector blog, in visible light appear greenish in color. The color is the result of a specific atomic transition in the oxygen atom that occurs under very low density conditions. First the oxygen has to be ionized twice, i.e. it has to have lost two electrons, then it is through collisions that the transitions producing the characteristic green lines emit. A rule-of-thumb temperature for planetary nebulae is 10,000 degrees Kelvin. Thus, if there is a celestial body that appears ‘green’ in visible light you can conclude that it might include oxygen especially if it is a nebula which tends to have low density and it should be around 10,000 degrees Kelvin. Hydrogen is also found in planetary nebulae and the strongest transition line, known as H-alpha, occurs when its electron goes from an excited state to a less excited state releasing energy in the form of red light.

In the case of ALMA and SKA, they are probing two different sections of the electromagnetic spectrum similar to studying green light or red light. In the fullness of time, SKA will cover the same wavelengths and types of celestial bodies as the EVLA but focused on the Southern sky rather than the Northern, but also be more sensitive revealing more physical details. ALMA will add to our understanding of the same region of the sky but is studying different physical properties of celestial bodies. Both will add to our understanding of the Milky Way and the Universe.

NSBP members visit South Africa to strengthen ties March 15, 2013

Posted by admin in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), Cosmology, Gravitation, and Relativity (CGR), History, Policy and Education (HPE), Technology Transfer, Business Development and Entrepreneurism (TBE) , add a comment

NSBP members Kartik Sheth and Eric Wilcots along with National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) astronomer Scott Ransom have been in South Africa to cement linkages for a NRAO’s faculty bridge program. NSBP, the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP), NRAO and others are working together on the science dimension of the US-South Africa Bilateral Strategic Dialogue.

The visit is intended to foster partnerships in multi-wavelength astronomy research.  Last week they had meetings with astronomers and cosmologists at University of Cape Town, University of Western Cape, SAAO, the SKA Africa Project Office and the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS).  This week they will also meet with high energy astrophysicists at the Potchefstroom campus of North-West University, University of Johannesburg, and University of Witswatersrand, as well as astronomers at the North-West University campus in Mafikeng, and the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO).

As South Africa builds a second NASSP site, teaching and research partnerships with NRAO will be beneficial on both sides of the Atlantic. NRAO currently operates four premier radio astronomy observatories: ALMA, JVLA, GBT and the VLBA.  NRAO is likely to also be a partner in helping to train scientists across the continent to be operators and users of the African VLBI Network (AVN). The AVN project consists of converting large, redundant telecommunications dishes across Africa for radio astronomy. The AVN will become part of the global VLBI network.

In addition to major radio astronomy successes, South Africa’s strategic plan for astronomy calls for its institutions to be active in multiple wavelengths including radio, optical, gamma/x-ray, and near IR. South Africa is the host of the Southern Africa Large Telescope (SALT), the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. Wilcots is a member of the SALT board. South Africa is also supporting the Namibian bid to host the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA), the next generation success to the H.E.S.S telescope that has been in Namibia since 2002. Following an exchange at the 2011 NSBP conference, South Africa and the LIGO Collaboration have begun exploring opportunities in gravitational wave astronomy. Already LIGO and SAIP have convened a faculty workshop and a student summer school, both in Pretoria.

In a separate but simultaneous visit, Jim Gates participated in South Africa’s National Science Festival (SciFest), giving talks at several venues around the country on science policy and supersymmetry.  ScieFest was established in 1996 to promote the public awareness, understanding and appreciation of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and innovation. The main event in Grahamstown, held in March every year, attracts 72,000 visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Several government departments, listed companies, museums, NGOs, research facilities, science centers, science councils, universities, as well as small, medium and micro enterprises, both from South Africa and abroad contribute to the success of the event.

Gates was on the same program as South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom.  Each discussed science and innovation policy and gave their perspectives on aligning science with national priorities. Additionally Gates participated in three formal policy meetings, including one with Simphiwe Duma, CEO of the Technology Innovation Agency, and two more informal policy meetings.  In a lecture at the University of South Africa (UNISA) he and Dr. Rob Adam, former head to South Africa’s National Research Foundation, spoke on the efficacy of policy-formation surrounding STEM fields and the innovation cycle.

In other events around the country Gates met 45 students spanning the 8th through 11th grade levels at the Mae Jemison Science Reading Room in the Mamelodi township.  At Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and the University of Johannesburg he gave talks on the strange mathematical objects found in the equations of supersymmetry.

These meetings and exchanges involving NSBP and South African colleagues are all part of the evolution from ideas put into motion by the Nobel Laureate, Abdus Salaam, and the founders of the Edward Bouchet-Abdus Salaam Institute (EBASI). Over a decade ago former NSBP president, Charles McGruder, traveled to South Africa to explore possible linkages between astronomers.  That visit led to Khotso Mokhele’s participation in the 2004 NSBP conference.  At the time he was the head of South Africa’s National Research Foundation. Later NSBP won a grant from the WK Kellogg Foundation to support NSBP’s participation the NASSP program. In the year’s since, NSBP has partnered with SAIP on a number of projects, and the relationship was codified in at MOU signed at the 2011 NSBP conference and witnessed by Minister Naledi Pandor.  The relationships between NSBP, SAIP as well as colleagues across the entire continent continue to evolve and vistas are opening up in the realms of geophysics, biophysics and medical physics, nuclear and particle physics, mathematical and computational physics, as well as physics education at all levels.

Interview with Tony Beasley: New director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory August 17, 2012

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Last February the Associated Universities, Inc. appointed Dr. Anthony Beasley as the next NRAO director. Originally from Australia, Beasley has had a distinguished career in radio astronomy. He has played a key role in the planning and commissioning of several major instruments and facilities. In his most recent appointment his skills were used in ecological research, where those colleagues too have large networks of major scientific facilities. In a wide-ranging interview with Waves and Packets, Beasley discusses the future of NRAO and of radio astronomy in general, global collaborations like the Square Kilometer Array and VLBI, the U.S. astronomy portfolio in tough budgetary times and the promise of citizen-science in making profound discoveries.

Listen to interview

Statement by South African Institute of Physics on the KAT-7 Milestone March 20, 2012

Posted by International.Chair in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO) , 3comments

“The South African Institute of Physics is very pleased to see the announcement of the scientific commissioning of a new and exciting mode of the KAT-7 radio telescope, the precursor to the more powerful MeerKAT telescope now under construction. The first images represent high resolution velocity measurements of hydrogen gas clouds within a nearby galaxy, which is a remarkable early achievement. Such measurements contribute to the most fundamental questions in physics, related to the existence of Dark Matter and possible new models for gravity. These are exciting times for physics and astronomy in South Africa. With the Southern African Large Telescope, the KAT-7 and MeerKAT arrays, the HESS facility in Namibia, and with our colleagues on the continent and around the world, Southern Africa has already achieved a multi-wavelength capability in astronomy that is world-class. We are grateful for the support our government has given to these endeavors. This has led to a massive growth in globally competitive research capacity, which is in fact spreading throughout Africa. We look boldly to the future not only for the scientific results that will be achieved, but the overall public benefits from spin-off innovation and high level capacity building that these projects will continue to bring.” – SAIP President.

Why does Africa need the Square Kilometre Array? August 16, 2011

Posted by admin in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), Cosmology, Gravitation, and Relativity (CGR), History, Policy and Education (HPE), Technology Transfer, Business Development and Entrepreneurism (TBE) , 2comments

2009 Address by Dr Adrian Tiplady, Manager, Site Characterization, SKA Africa Project Office

Honourable Minister, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman

Why does Africa need the Square Kilometre Array? It is a question often posed by a public that is cognisant of the many high priorities that South Africa, and Africa as a whole, faces. We are currently engaged in an international race, competing to host a multi‐billion dollar, cutting edge astronomical facility that, in my view, may very well be mankind’s last great astronomical adventure still bound on earth. Do we, as South Africans, have the skills and expertise to compete within the world’s scientific community, to produce scientists and engineers of the highest calibre that will compete in the global knowledge economy? (answer at the end)

Today, during the International Year of Astronomy, the world faces economic recession and a financial crisis like never before. Uncertainties in food, water and energy supply loom, whilst climate change has become an ever present maxim in the implementation of global policies. Africa suffers from the unrelenting scourge of preventable diseases such as Aids and malaria. Why, then, has South Africa, and Africa, announced to the international community that “we have the desire to become the international hub for astronomy”?

In the US, President Barak Obama has committed to significantly increasing investment into science, as one of the most important parts of stimulating the economy. In his address to the US National Academy of Science, President Obama said:

“At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more important for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than ever before”.

He went on to say:

“The pursuit of discovery half a century ago fueled our prosperity … in the half century that followed. The commitment I am making today will fuel our success for another fifty years. That’s how we will ensure that our children and their children will look back on this generation’s work as that which defined the progress and delivered the prosperity of the 21st century. …. The fact is that an investigation into a particular physical, chemical or biological process may not pay off for a year or two, or a decade, or not at all. But when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared……..And that’s why …… the public sector must invest in this kind of research – because while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society. ….. It was basic research in … the photoelectric effect that would one day lead to solar panels. It was basic research in physics that would eventually produce the CAT scan. The calculations of today’s GPS satellites are based on the equations that Einstein put on paper more than a century ago”.

Even with the wealth disparity between the USA and South Africa, science and technology on the African continent is still seen as key to our ability to solve the problems of development that will determine the future of Africa and South Africa. Investment in mega‐science facilities has never been as important as it is today, where the brain drain, ill equipped school leavers and the lack of funding for higher education facilities to pursue areas of basic research have a directly detrimental effect on our ability to participate in the global knowledge economy, where we become innovators as opposed to consumers of technology.. And to retain these people, to stem the flow of skilled people leaving these shores, we need to provide flagship projects, such as those in astronomy that places cutting edge development in a variety of scientific and engineering disciplines at its core competency.

In 2003, the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation decided to enter into a race with four competing countries to host the world’s largest radio telescope. The Square Kilometre Array, as it is known, began as an international project in 1991, and currently involves 55 institutions across 19 countries. At a capital cost of more than $2 billion USD, the international consortium aims to have the SKA up and running by 2022, spending a further $150 million USD per year for the next 50 years in running costs. Much of this expenditure will be spent in the host country. The instrument is projected to be between 50 and 100 times more powerful than any radio astronomy facility ever built, an array of some 4,500 radio telescopes distributed over an area 3,000 km in extent. Combining the signals from each of these telescopes using a supercomputer 100 times more powerful than anything that exists today will create a virtual telescope, spanning 3000km in diameter, with a total collecting area of 1 square kilometre ‐ the equivalent of over 1,000,000 DSTV satellite dishes. This will result in an instrument with unparalleled sensitivity and resolution.

In this International Year of Astronomy, we believe we understand just 4% of all the matter and energy in the universe. The world’s astronomical community are striving to answer some of the great fundamental questions that face the world’s scientific community, and also raise new questions ‐ not just in astronomy but indeed in fundamental physics. Instruments such as the recently launched Herschel and Planck telescopes are being put into orbit 1.5 million km away from earth, collecting the kind of data that is possible now because of technological innovations in the last 10 years. Data that could help us answer the very mysteries of the universe. Plans are afoot to venture outside of the earth, and even place telescopes onto the dark side of the moon.

The SKA is part of this frontier of new instruments. Some of the many questions to be answered are :

What is the nature of dark energy – a mysterious force that acts in opposition to gravity on very large distances, repelling massive objects from each other with ever increasing force?

How did the universe and all that is contained within it evolve – radio signals have been travelling through the universe for 13 billion years, and we are only receiving some of them today as we take “pictures” of the big bang and the first stars and galaxies. We will be able to make snapshots of the universe through time.

Mankind has long striven to answer the question of whether there is life on other planets? The detection of biomolecules, or even artificial radio transmissions, may answer this. These questions and more, however, probably do not approach the rich rewards that will come from not what we plan to investigate, but rather what we haven’t planned for. Radio telescopes today are not remembered for what they were built, but instead for what they serendipitously discovered.

When South Africa, with a rather small human capital base in radio astronomy at the time, submitted its bid in 2005, we took the international community by surprise. Any degree of afro‐pessimism was dismissed, however, when South Africa was shortlisted along with radio astronomy international heavyweight ‐ Australia. Why? Because we have something that no amount of financial investment could ever buy. We have one of the best locations in the world to build and operate astronomical facilities, and a very committed Department of Science and Technology and National Treasury.

The Southern African Large Telescope in Sutherland has some of the darkest skies in the world – and the proposed SKA core site, just 80km northwest of the town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, has one of the best radio frequency environments in the world, free from a majority of the interfering radio signals that plague most of the world’s radio astronomy facilities. Furthermore, because of our geographic location on the planet, the very best astronomical sources to observe pass right overhead – we literally have the best window on the planet out of which to gaze upon the universe, and explore the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Protection of this site is of the utmost importance – not only to protect South Africa’s geographical advantage, but to preserve the site for the world’s astronomical community. To meet this requirement, the Department of Science and Technology has promulgated the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, which allows for the establishment of an astronomy reserve in the Northern Cape Province. A reserve in which astronomy facilities are protected from sources of optical and radio interference.

The Australian Minister of Science has described winning the SKA bid as being like winning the Olympic site bid every day for 50 years. If the right to host the SKA were to be awarded to South Africa, and its 7 African partner countries, we would become a premier centre for research in astronomy and fundamental physics – going hand in hand with cutting edge development in the engineering technologies that co‐exist with this field of research.

As many of the technologies do not yet exist, to build the SKA will require a significant international effort in the fields of information and communication technology, supercomputing, mechanical, radio frequency, software and electronic engineering, physics, mathematics and, of course, astronomy. All fields that provide a basis for a strong knowledge economy. In 2004 the DST, together with the NRF, decided that simply competing to host the SKA would not meet the aims of building a knowledge economy – what was needed was a flagship project that would provide an opportunity to increase the skills base of our young scientists and engineers. We needed to participate in the technology development for the SKA, to grow a substantial base of scientists and engineers in South Africa that would be able to use, operate and maintain the SKA. And so was born the Karoo Array Telescope – an SKA science and technology pathfinder.

MeerKAT, as it is now known, will be the first radio interferometer built for astronomical purposes in South Africa. It will consist of 80 dishes, and once completed in 2013 will be one of the world’s premier radio astronomy facilities that will have not only South Africa scientists, but the world’s astronomical community, clamouring to use – 9 years before the SKA is scheduled to be commissioned.

Over the course of the last 5 years, we have built up a team of some 60 young scientists and engineers who are working on the technologies and algorithms required for the MeerKAT, which will in turn test the technologies for the SKA. Many of these people would have most probably left these shores already, looking for more exciting projects to work on in Silicon Valley, or other technology clusters. However, the lure and attraction of such a project as MeerKAT, and the larger SKA, has kept them here. Although none had any radio astronomy training, the team has quickly become an international leader in the development of technologies for radio astronomy facilities, which in fact are the generic technologies upon which the digital age depends, and are highly likely over many years to generate spin‐off technologies, innovations and patents. They have managed to do this through international collaboration with institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Caltech, Cornell and Berkeley, as well as the national radio astronomy observatories in the USA, India, Italy and The Netherlands. We are also working closely with several South African universities and companies.

Amongst other things, the team has developed the first every radio telescope made from composite materials, and is playing a leading role in the international development of digital hardware for real time data processing. The first 7 MeerKAT dishes are being constructed as I speak.

In a recent editorial in the local WattNow magazine, Paddy Hartdegen says the following of the SKA and MeerKAT projects : “In my view, gee whiz projects such as the SKA and the MeerKAT go a long way to encouraging youngsters to take science and engineering disciplines more seriously. And if there is some thrill attached to science, astronomy or mathematics, then the students will apply themselves more diligently at primary and secondary schools, to ensure that they will have the necessary qualification to enter a university”. He goes on to say “I believe that projects such as the SKA can actually foster the sort of compelling interest that is reserved for sports stars and pop musicians“

So, is Paddy Hartdegen right? Do the SKA and MeerKAT projects have the qualities that will attract students into science, engineering and technology? In 2005, we initiated a Youth into Science and Engineering program, to rapidly grow the human capital base in astronomy and engineering in South Africa. To date, we have awarded 142 post‐doctoral fellowships, PhD, masters degree, honours degree and undergraduate degree bursaries. We are currently awarding approximately 45 bursaries per year. We are assisting universities to increase their astronomy research capacity, and to develop additional capacity to supervise students through international supervisory programs. The question is, can these students stand on their own two feet within the international astronomical community?

For the last 3 years, we have held a post‐graduate student conference for our bursary holders, where each student presents the results of his or her research. We invite a number of international experts to attend. To date, none have declined the invitation – not due to the opportunity for a holiday in Cape Town, but instead because of the astounding reputation this conference has grown internationally due to the quality of students and research. Professor Steve Rawlings, Head of Astrophysics at Oxford University, said on his departure “I am awfully impressed by what I have seen at this conference and how things have exploded on the science and engineering side on such a short timescale. South Africa is doing all the right things for the SKA”.

So, what has the establishment of a flagship project resulted in? People. Skilled people. The new measure of financial prosperity. Skilled people who are helping to change South Africa’s reputation as a place of high technology investment, research and development. These students, who cross the race and gender lines, may never stay within the field. However, they will carry the skills they have learnt into new areas, and their impact will be felt through a variety of socio‐economic lines.

The SKA, and the MeerKAT, has matured into a project of which we, as the South African scientific community, can be proud. It is a project that should capture the South African public’s imagination, young and old alike.

Do we, as South Africans, have the skills and expertise to compete within the world’s scientific community, to produce scientists and engineers of the highest calibre that will compete in the global knowledge economy?

We have in the past, and we will continue to do so. The answer, therefore, is a resounding yes.