Flagship initiatives such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project “have the potential to support our training and production of the next generation of scientists and technologists in Africa”, science and technology minister Naledi Pandor told the opening plenary of South Africa’s inaugural Science Forum.
“Scientists need iconic, challenging initiatives that will respond to their search for new knowledge and innovative technology.”
The SKA, which has a conservative price tag of EUR2-billion, will be the largest radio telescope on Earth, with thousands of antennae throughout Australia and Africa. The core of the telescope will be in South Africa’s Northern Cape. All celestial bodies emit radio waves, and by collecting these relatively weak signals, scientists will attempt to answer some of humanity’s most baffling questions: Is there other life in the universe, what happened right after the big bang and what is dark matter?
However, this initiative is not limited to South Africa. There are eight other African partner countries – namely Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia – which will have collections of SKA antennae in their countries.
As part of its efforts to ensure that African countries have the capacity to host a portion of this giant telescope, SKA South Africa initiated a human capital development programme. To date, more than 600 people from the continent have received bursaries to become technicians, engineers, or scientists.
SKA South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff has said that this project has reduced South Africa’s brain drain, with South African scientists and engineers returning home as well as foreign experts being attracted by the possibility of working on the telescope.
South Africa is also building its own telescope: the 64-dish MeerKAT, a precursor telescope being design, built and funded by South Africa, will form part of SKA Phase One.
The first five years of the MeerKAT’s observing time had already been allocated to scientists from all over the world, including South Africa, Prof Russ Taylor told an audience at the Science Forum.
But one of the major challenges of modern radio astronomy – a problem which will be exemplified in the SKA – is how to process all of the data coming from the antennae, he said. Taylor is one of the SKA research chairs, based at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape.
“It is well-known to be one of the most challenging big data [projects],” Taylor said. “We’re talking ‘exaflops’ of data. That doesn’t exist yet.”
An exaflop involves a billion billion calculations per second.
“The SKA is a driver for developing the solution, so it’s a good area of research to get involved in to learn data science and the techiques we can use to analyse big data sets,” Taylor said earlier this year. [S: he told me this in October.]
However, at the moment, South Africa lacks data scientists, and there is a concerted push to training people in this area, so that the country is not left out of this field of SKA science.
In September this year, three universities – the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and North West University – launched the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy.
At the launch of this institute, Pandor said: “A significant focus and investment in big data in South Africa is not only overdue, but is probably crucial if South Africa is to play a significant role in the world economy in the coming decades.”
Taylor told the packed room at the CSIR’s International Convention Centre that the role of the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy was to “work on a solution for big data, but also to train people”.
- NOTE: This is part of a series produced for Independent Newspapers’ post-Science Forum supplement.