Many of the new discoveries in science come about when new instruments are built. About twelve years ago, an international consortium of astronomers decided to build the world’s biggest telescope. This telescope will be so sensitive that it will be able to look back to a few million years after the Big Bang or the beginning of the Universe – that is, it will look back about 14 billion years. One of the wonderful things about astronomy is that when you look at stars or galaxies or gas clouds which are very far away, you see them as they were a very long time ago.
The new telescope which is being planned is called the Square Kilometre Array Radio Telescope or SKA. The SKA will probably be made up of about 8 000 dishes which look like DSTV dishes but are about 12 m in diameter. These dishes will be joined together with the world’s fastest optical fibre network and will feed into the world’s fastest computer system. The SKA will be so powerful that it will be able to make pictures of the universe as it was very soon after the Big Bang, so scientists will be able to see how the universe has changed since it was born, and how the first stars and galaxies formed, and how they have changed over the history of the universe.
The capital budget for the SKA is €1.5 billion and the operating budget for it will be about €150 million per year, so having it built in South Africa would be a huge and ongoing investment. Not only would it bring money and work to South Africa, but it would make South Africa a world centre of science and engineering and would attract the best young scientists and engineers from South Africa and from around the world.
I was asked to direct the project by the Dept of Science and Technology and have been lucky to assemble a team of very committed and innovative scientists and engineers. We are competing with Australia to have the SKA built in the Karoo. Meanwhile, we are building the MeerKAT telescope in the Karoo, near Carnarvon. It is located there to be far away from cell phones, TV transmitters and radars, which would blind the telescope.
The MeerKAT is a scaled down version of the SKA, but it will be the largest radio telescope in the world for many years and will allow South African scientists to do world-beating science. We are collaborating with the best universities in the world, such as Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester, Berkeley and Caltech and with universities in Mauritius, Madagascar and Mozambique.
Our team of young engineers and scientists is inexperienced in astronomy, but has leapt to a leading role in the international technology development for the SKA in only two years, showing the excellent skills which our universities produce in spite of the funding drought, and showing how innovative South Africans can be. This team, and the industries and universities working with us, are gaining expertise in the technologies which the world will need in the next decade, like very fast computing, very fast data transport, antenna design, radio frequency engineering and software development.
Working with engineers and good scientists is very rewarding. They just get on with it and design and build things, instead of having committee meetings about them. What is most enjoyable is to be able to work with young, very clever and very enthusiastic young people, who are really making things happen.
What I have learnt from all the jobs I’ve done is that the way to get things done is to find very good and capable people, motivate them, give them direction and let them get on with it. It sounds trite, but it has taken me a long time to learn that leadership is really about these things. You have to be able to give people a vision, find the right people to implement it, and help them to do so.
South Africa’s success depends on the quality of its people and its leadership. Education and skills are fundamental to our success. We can make some progress as a resource – based economy, but we cannot ignore the fact that an increasingly large proportion of world trade is in the so-called “global knowledge economy”. That is, it is trade in knowledge products rather than in basic resources. Knowledge products can be high-tech hardware, software, financial products, internet content or a variety of other things.
If we can’t compete in this global knowledge economy, we will gradually fall further and further behind compared to wealthier countries. This is a challenge facing Africa in general. It is interesting to watch the current strategy of the oil-rich Middle East states, which are using their oil wealth not only to invest in other nation’s property and banks and companies, but also on a large scale to develop their universities and research and to attract technology-based companies. The digital divide is about making South Africa and other African countries capable of developing their knowledge economies and participating in the world trade in knowledge products, as well as developing our natural resources.
South Africa doesn’t have a very impressive record in innovation. We are turning out far too few PhDs and engineers. India, China and many other countries, like Australia, are churning them out in hundreds and thousands. To add to this problem, the rate of production of students with higher grade maths and science in our schools is very low. And those who do succeed these days are in great demand, and often don’t go into science or engineering because they want quick gratification in the form of money, by going into business.
Most young people leaving school also don’t know what a career in science or engineering entails. Too often, the teachers are not qualified in maths or science themselves and don’t themselves know what a scientist or an engineer does, so they can’t explain the science and the maths or what a science or engineering career entails. And they can’t make young people excited about being scientists or engineers, which is the most important thing of all. Students also see under-funded universities struggling to do research and to teach on paltry budgets and poor salaries. Failing to invest effectively in our universities is short-sighted in the extreme. You can’t solve the problems of primary and secondary education by starving the universities and technikons. You simply aggravate those problems by depriving the schools of good, qualified, motivated and exciting teachers.
If you have skills and qualifications, and you are energetic and prepared to work, there is so much you can do.
Graduation Address of Dr Bernard Fanaroff ,Faculties of Science and Pharmacy, Rhodes University, South Africa
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