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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.