Inspired and inspirational scientists

I was thinking a bit today about the inspirational talks I’ve been lucky to listen to over the last year.

In February last year, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens offered a series of star walks, in which visitors were allowed into the Gardens in the evening and taught a little bit about astronomy. We were fortunate to attend one of these star walks, which I’d blogged about at the time. The night we’d chosen was rather cloudy and quite chilly, but that didn’t deter about 40-50 curious visitors and about 10 dedicated astronomers. We all found a place to perch on a grassy slope, from where we had an almost uninterrupted view across the Cape Flats.

As the daylight slowly faded and the blanket of clouds intermittently lifted, we were given an opportunity to look through the telescopes that had been set up for us, with the astronomers – both amateur and professional – pointing out planets, distant stars and constellations. Amazingly, we even got to view Saturn with its rings! They replied patiently to a veritable barrage of questions and told stories of their personal experiences with stargazing… Their evident passion for their field of study was infectious.

A couple of months after that, in May last year, we were lucky to get tickets for an event organised by the African Institute of Mathematics (AIMS), a fairly recently established centre for postgraduate study based in Muizenberg. They had managed to get an impressive group of highly respected Nobel laureate scientists to visit South Africa, namely Stephen Hawking, Michael Griffin, David Gross and George Smoot. It was an extraordinary experience to witness Stephen Hawking giving a presentation to us, and we felt incredibly honoured to have seen him ‘live’.

Michael Griffin (an American physcist and aerospace engineer, he was also the head of NASA at the time) was a particularly impassioned speaker, who gave a slick presentation full of fascinating anecdotes. He made us feel energised. If I had had a teacher like him around at school or at university, I would have wanted to learn all about space and flying to the moon and to the planets far beyond. But it’s a little late to start my life over again.  (I blogged about this event here.)

Then, last week Monday, 23 February, we attended a public lecture by Prof Malcolm Longair, titled “Black Holes made simple” at the MTN Sciencentre at Canal Walk. What struck me most was how Prof Longair managed to share his excitement at working through mathematical and astrophysical challenges, by conveying his own knowledge and expertise in a way that could be understood by non-experts too.

The next day, 24 February, he gave another public lecture, this time to students at the University of Cape Town, under the title of “Hot News from the Big Bang: Why Inflation is a Good Thing”. Unfortunately I missed his talk, but I saw that there was a brief article about it on the UCT website:

“During an inspiring lecture, he told students that it was up to the next generation of scientists, through projects such as the Square Kilometre Array, to contribute to finding a solution to this and other astrophysical puzzles.” (see here for rest of the article)

This reminded me of the day of the partial solar eclipse on 26 January, when I picked up some of that same enthusiastic promotion of science and technology, particularly in the field of astronomy and radio astronomy, when we attended a morning event at the South African Astronomical Observatory.

On 29 January, this event even made it onto the excellent Astronomy Picture of the Day website, as a result of a photograph taken by Simon Fishley of the SAAO that day.

An Eclipse T-Shirt

An Eclipse T-Shirt

“Explanation: Of course, everyone is concerned about what to wear to a solar eclipse. This is a great example though, especially for the first eclipse of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. In the picture, recorded during the January 26 solar eclipse from the grounds of the South African Astronomical Observatory at Cape Town, repeated images of the eclipse adorn a well-chosen shirt. The effect is familiar to eclipse enthusiasts as small gaps, commonly between leaves on trees, act as pinhole cameras to generate multiple recognizable images of the eclipse. From the Cape Town perspective, the solar eclipse was a partial one, with a maximum of about 65% of the Sun covered. But along a track extending across the Indian Ocean and western Indonesia the eclipse became annular, the solar disk briefly appearing as a fiery ring around the silhouetted Moon.”

The school children milling around the instruments, gazing at the posters and asking questions of the various astronomers, scientists and ‘experts’ on duty that morning, were a clear example of the level of curiosity and enthusiasm in that younger generation. They chattered excitedly amongst each other, gazing up at the sky through their eclipse viewers, as the moon disc moved gradually across the sun.

I wonder how many of them will persevere in their studies of mathematics, science, chemistry, physics, etc. in order to become the scientists and engineers our country will need in order to make full use of the technologies now being conceptualised, designed, created and built?

And I guess that’s part of what the Square Kilometre Array project, the pathfinder Karoo Array Telescope project and the larger MeerKAT project are about: closer collaboration with international scientists and engineers in all kinds of fields of research, not just in astronomy, radio astronomy, electrical engineering and high performance computing.

When they come to South Africa to share their knowledge, experience and insights with us, and when they do so with enthusiasm, dedication and passion, then we really are honoured and blessed.

Not only does their excitement motivate the next generation to pursue careers in science and technology, but it also drives home the point that we are living all on the same Earth, together, and that the Universe out there sure is a big place.

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