Wits and Sci-Bono team up for National Science Week

Wits has partnered with the Sci-Bono Discovery centre in Johannesburg to celebrate National Science Week (NSW), a major event aimed at encouraging young people to study science.

Dr. Ian McKay from the Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research will be participating in the week-long programme at Sci-Bono,  and Alvin Moodley from Student Recruitment will have a career guidance exhibition.

NSW is celebrated across all nine provinces during the week of 30 July to 4 August 2012. The University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Soweto campus hosted exhibitions of the latest science being done in South Africa at the launch on Saturday. The launch was opened by the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor.

Busloads of school children from the area got a glimpse into science as a choice of tertiary study and as a career path. Institutions like the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and some universities showcased their latest research.

According to the South African National Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), the purpose of the week is to contribute to science, engineering and technology among various sections of the population. It is also to expose learners and teachers to science-based careers, especially those from previously disadvantaged schools. SAASTA is a unit of the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

Although Wits was not present at the launch, which was arranged by the DST and UJ, they are involved in the promotion of science throughout the year.

“Wits is certainly committed to promoting the public understanding of science and aside from our participation in various activities involving National Science Week, we have undertaken numerous public activities this year,” said Wits communication manager Shirona Patel.

Beyond their partnership with Sci-Bono for NSW, she highlighted a few examples of Wits’ participation in the public understanding of science. For instance, Wits was involved in the SKA campaign and hosted important paleosciences lectures, especially in light of the recent Sediba fossil findings. Patel said these were only some examples of their many efforts.

As for Witsies themselves, they will be participating in ‘career speed-dating’ as part of NSW, as well as initiatives that bring art and science together. Witsies will also be presenting and mentoring at several NSW sessions.

SKA in SA – an international sensation

Local and international media have been buzzing with news after it was announced that the majority of the SKA, the world’s largest radio telescope array, will be built in South Africa.


Been there, done that

South Africa successfully hosted a 2 billion dollar soccer tournament in 2010, so building the world’s most powerful radio telescope at the same cost and with many more long term benefits should not be a problem.

Dr. Adrian Tiplady shared some of the advantages to hosting the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radiotelescope in South Africa with the public at the Wits Origins Centre last week. Tiplady is the South African SKA Site Characterisation Manager and one of Mail & Guardian’s top 200 Young South Africans.

The SKA is a global futuristic science project that was first devised in 1991. Tiplady explained that the telescope had to be designed using technology that would only be available in 2016. It will be 100 times more sensitive than today’s telescopes and will have the computing power of 1 billion personal computers.

Scientists use radiotelescopes to see into the past, to the origins of the Universe – an appropriate topic for a talk at the Origins Centre, said Tiplady.

Telescopes like the Hubble use light to take pictures but space dust and other obstacles may hide objects further away. Radiowaves move through these obstacles which means that astronomers can “see” much more by “listening” with radiotelescopes.

These radiotelescopes must be built in areas where there is little cellphone, radio and TV interference. Tiplady said the Northern Cape is the perfect location for this. He also said South Africa has superior technical solutions and is home to the world’s leading science and engineering team.

South Africa is bidding against Australia to host the telescope and rumours are rife that the two countries may have to share the site.

Tiplady said that although a huge disadvantage of this would be the high costs involved, his personal opinion is that sharing will ensure that scientists collecting the data will never miss anything.

At a press conference earlier this year the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, joked that not sharing the site was about the only thing on which she and the Australian minister agreed.

Wits on the final frontier

WITS has the potential to become the African hub of astronomy thanks in part to South Africa’s bid to host the world’s biggest radio telescope.

South Africa is bidding to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), for which Prof Sergio Colafrancesco holds a research chair at Wits. Colafrancesco spoke to Vuvuzela after a decision on the host country was delayed last week.

In the eight months since his appointment Colafrancesco has already assembled the largest astronomy research group in Gauteng and it is growing fast.

In addition to the SKA project, Wits is very active in developing southern Africa as a the place to be for astronomy research using a range of different telescopes, or a multi-frequency approach: Southern Africa already has the optical Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and Wits is assisting Namibia in bidding for the gamma-ray Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA).

In addition, Colafrancesco said the Mitra, KAT-7 and MeerKAT telescopes are all part of the bid to host the SKA, so the bidding process itself was worth it for astronomy in South Africa.

Listening in on the big bang: Some of the 7 dishes of the KAT-7 telescope built alongside the SKA site. The SKA will be the most powerful telescope ever built. It will use radio waves to look back in time to the beginning of the universe. See more pictures and information at www.ska.ac.za. PHOTO: DR NADEEM OOZEER

These telescopes also show South Africa’s commitment to hosting the SKA. Such projects are absent from Australia, the other bidding country.

Scientifically, South Africa’s site is better, labour costs are cheaper and high-speed internet lines to Europe are already established, said Colafrancesco. He also highlighted many other advantages to building the SKA in Southern Africa rather than in Australia.

The SKA’s decision making committee delayed the expected announcement last week saying it was “important to maximise the value from the investments made by both candidate host regions”.

Colafrancesco agrees with the SKA committee in this but, in his opinion, there is no doubt that South Africa’s site will the best choice for everyone involved.

“It’s not a competition like a rugby match – everyone should win.” He said South Africa’s site combined with Australia’s experience in radio-astronomy makes the most sense for the project.

He said South Africa should remain optimistic about winning the bid because last week’s delay allows the deciding committee to become more aware of South Africa’s advantages and opportunities. “It’s a chance for the world to open their eyes about South Africa.”

Published in Vuvuzela Print Edition, 13 April 2012

SKA: “A wonderful boom for Africa, through science”

South Africa is ready to host the world’s most powerful radio telescope. That was the message Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology, wanted the world to hear.

SKA: “What a wonderful boom for Africa, through science, ” said minister of Science & Technology, Naledi Pandor. PHOTO: ANINA MINNAAR

She was speaking at a media briefing held on Thursday, 29 March 2012, by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the South African Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project team and the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF).

The SKA Founding Board had been expected to announce a final decision on the SKA host country next week. Instead, the meetings on April 3rd  and 4th would address concerns and finalise the site selection process, said DST Director General, Dr Phil Mjwara, and SA SKA Director, Dr Bernie Fanaroff.

But Pandor insisted that South Africa would push for a final answer. “Our site is better…We think we’ll be a brilliant decision.”

She said the benefits of the SKA project to South Africa would mainly be in the form of human capital. “Expanding the number of Africa’s scientists and technicians will allow South Africa and Africa to play an increasingly important role in the global knowledge economy.”

Almost 400 postdoctoral, PhD, Masters and undergraduate SKA bursaries have already been awarded to South African and African students since 2005. Two Wits students were among this year’s bursary recipients.

The SKA facility will also generate employment in infrastructure construction and, along with other large-scale astronomy facilities like the MEERKAT, will attract tourists and drive socio-economic development.

When asked what would happen if South Africa  was not chosen as the host, the minister replied: “Plan A: we are ready to host the SKA. Plan B: we are ready to host the SKA. Plan C: we are ready to host the SKA”.

Wits is home to one of the seven SKA research chairs, Prof Sergio Colafrancesco, chair in radio astronomy. Colafrancesco is currently abroad supporting South Africa’s SKA bid and was unavailable for comment.

The panel from left to right: Dr Bernie Fanaroff, Minister Naledi Pandor and Dr Phil Mjwara. PHOTO: ANINA MINNAAR