Category: Science

Baby MeerKAT exceeds expectations

The first image from South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope shows that the telescope “will be a remarkable discovery machine”, MeerKAT chief scientist Dr Fernando Camilo said on Saturday.

“The images tell us all that MeerKAT is the best telescope of its kind in the southern hemisphere, with only 16 dishes,” he told an assembled audience of ministers, deputy ministers and visitors to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) site in the Northern Cape.

On Saturday, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor inaugurated the first 16 dishes of the MeerKAT telescope – and unveiled its first image. By the end of next year, the MeerKAT telescope, which is South African designed and built, will comprise 64 dishes.

These giant two-storey dishes rise up out of the centre of the MeerKAT core area, standing incongruously against a backdrop of ocre sand and scrubland. Others wait to be assembled, their white metal bowls ready to be hoisted onto waiting pedestals.

“When the full 64-dish MeerKAT is available, it will be the best telescope of its kind in the world,” said Camilo, formerly of Columbia Univeristy who took up the post in April.

“It is very, very difficult to get to this stage [as there is usually a process of trouble-shooting before a telescope can produce a high-quality image]. It tells us and the world that we have a working telescope in the Karoo,” he said.

Although the R3-billion MeerKAT is South Africa-owned and funded, it will be incorporated into the SKA, which will be the largest telescope in the world. The SKA will be hosted by Australia and South Africa, with satellite sites in eight African partner countries. It will seek to answer some of humanity’s most enigmatic questions: are we alone in the universe, what is dark matter, how do galaxies evolve, what happened after the Big Bang?

From 2018, another 133 dishes will be added to MeerKAT to form part of the phase one of the SKA, which has been capped at EUR650-million. In Australia, about 130 dipole antennas, which look like six-foot-tall Christmas trees made out of thick wire, will be constructed as part of this phase.

South Africa decided to build MeerKAT, even before it was announced in 2012 that the SKA would be split between the two countries. Part of the idea at the time was to showcase South Africa’s scientific and engineering capabilities and prove that the country could in fact build and host a radio telescope. The other part was to ensure that it would have a legacy project in case the country lost the hosting bid.

“This is not just an unveiling,” Pandor said at the MeerKAT-16 inauguration. “We want to show the world the kind of research that the MeerKAT-16 makes possible…. We were only meant to reach this [quality of image] at 32 [dishes], not 16.”

It is difficult and expensive to engineer a radio telescope with only one big dish. This is why the MeerKAT – and ultimately the SKA – is an interferometer, which uses many smaller dishes to act as one giant telescope. What this means practically is that an interferometer can be brought online in phases, and the radio telescope can undertake science even though all of its phases are not operational.

Prof Justin Jonas, SKA South Africa chief technologist, said he was “amazed” at the quality of the image, although “there are no accidents here. It’s been a coherent effort from the whole team and the National Research Foundation and the Department of Science and Technology…. We hired the right people, had the right processes in place.”

“Personally, I’m very, very excited,” Jonas, who attended the first international SKA meeting as South Africa’s ambassador, said. “I’ve been wanting to build a radio telescope since I was a kid, and now we have. How many people get to do that? And it’s working!”

The released image is a picture of about 1300 radio galaxies, of which only 70 had been imaged before, Jonas said.

Celestial objects, like stars and galaxies, emit radio waves, which cannot be seen with the naked eye. Radio telescopes receive these relatively weak signals from the universe and turn them into maps and images of the universe. The radio spectrum is substantially broader than that of visible light, which means that scientists can “see” more with radio telescopes.

The “first light” image was taken in the L-band, which is a portion of the radio spectrum. This band is of interest globally because it contains information about how the universe and how galaxies evolve, among other things. MeerKAT is expected to be twice as sensitive in this band as was originally anticipated. This means that an experiment in this band could take a quarter of the time it was originally allocated.

However, Pandor said that there was more to South Africa’s astronomy investment than pure science: “Big science brings opportunity to South Africa and the African continent. The SKA brings opportunities to this area, opportunities they hadn’t hoped for.”

It was “not always easy to convince governments to support long-term projects and initiatives, especially in science … [where] there are often nuanced impacts that are not immediately visible”, she said, encouraging dignitaries including Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel and 11 deputy ministers from a number of departments, to become “ambassadors for science and the SKA”.

“Science and astronomy science can change lives, change communities, build human capital…. Through science, in South Africa and Africa, we are able to advance development.”

Wild was a guest of the Department of Science and Technology and SKA South Africa

  • This article was first published by Independent Newspapers.

SA versus Australia: Rugby, cricket and astronomy

South Africa and Australia have more in common than clear blue skies, rugby and a penchant for burning meat on an open fire.

The two countries – whose economies were founded on the mineral resources under the soil and which are separated from European, Asian and North American markets by thousands of kilometres – also engage in similar areas of science and research.

A list of Australia’s science and research focus areas looks very similar to what you would see in South Africa: supercomputing and big data, marine science, astronomy, nuclear research, mining technologies, climate change, and biodiversity, among others. But the major difference is one of scale – Australia simply has more money.

South Africa’s annual National Survey of Research and Experimental Development Survey 2013- 14, which was released last month, was underwhelming. The country failed to spend 1% of its gross domestic product on research and development (R&D) – the percentage has sat at 0.73% for the last three years – and its target of 1.5% by 2019 seems increasingly unattainable.

“It is clear that the country needs to significantly increase investment and growth in R&D,” the department of science and technology said in a statement, following the release of the report. The department is responsible for driving science and technology – and thus R&D – in the country. “This means that we need to maintain or scale up aspects of the current policy approach that are helping in this regard.”

In total, the country – which includes government, business, science councils, higher education institutions and the not-for-profit sector – spent R25.7-billion on R&D in 2013-14. At constant 2010 Rand values, this was a 1.4% increase on 2012-13.

However, this is dwarfed by Australia’s R&D spend. In 2013-14, the country spent Aus$33.5-billion (R386.5-billion) on R&D, with business accounting for the lion’s share. It spends just over 2.1% of its gross domestic product, which is substantially larger than South Africa’s, on R&D.

While there are many areas of research cross over – not least of all astronomy, with Australia and South Africa jointly hosting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the largest radio telescope in the world – the way that this research is organised is slightly different.

The main driver of R&D in South Africa’s government is the department of science and technology. This department is responsible for the National Research Foundation, which oversees research at higher education institutions and funds postgraduate students, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which is the largest scientific research institute on the continent.

According to the 2016 national budget, this relatively small department, which was established in 2002, has been allocated R7.43-billion for 2016-17, R7.56-billion for 2017-18 and R7.76-billion for 2018-19.

“The amounts are reasonable,” science and technology director-general Dr Phil Mjwara said when the budget was announced earlier this year. “We’re happy that at least the budget is still around R7.5-billion. There are [departments] that have lost several billion in their budget.

“In the entire context [of South Africa’s economic situation], we’re also contributing to belt tightening. We hope that, as the economic situation becomes better, it will increase,” he said.

The 2013-14 R&D figures did yield some good news, though: “This is the first year since 2008-09 that the business sector has shown a positive year-on-year change in R&D expenditure…. The largest increase in business-funded R&D since before 2009-10 also occurred in 2013-14,” the report’s authors write.

In 2013-14, business spent R10.6-billion on R&D. But that was not enough for business to topple government from its status as biggest funder of R&D, a position which it has held since 2012-13. Government accounted for 42.9% and business 41.4% in 2013-14.

Australian business, on the other hand, spent Aus$18.8-billion (R206.8-billion) on research in 2013- 14, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This is almost double what its government spent, at Aus$9.9-billion (R108.9-billion).

That government’s science agenda is strongly orientated towards business. For example, its department of science and technology-equivalent is called the department of industry, innovation and science.

Philip Dalidakis, the minister of small business, innovation and trade for the state of Victoria in eastern Australia, said: “Innovation policy is everything, not just technological. It is when you do something more efficiently than you did before. There is no limit to what innovation should be.”

Dalidakis, who is based in Melbourne and responsible for his portfolio in that state, said: “It’s about having the right infrastructure at the bottom, which allows those companies in those different fields to flourish.”

But his portfolio is heavily focused on commercialisation, rather than research. “No disrespect to the men and women who are running around doing research … running around in their little white lab coats thinking they’re saving the world, everything that I do as a minister will have a commercialisation focus.”

Commercialisation of knowledge is an issue in all countries – including Australia – but South Africa feels this issue keenly since most of its R&D personnel are based in universities. In 2013-14, there were just under 41,500 R&D personnel within the higher education sector, more than double the 17,600 in business.

Although South Africa has promulgated legislation to ensure that researchers flag possibly patentable research, the reality is that commercialisation is not the focus of an academic institution.

South Africa and Australia both have R&D tax incentive schemes to encourage business to do R&D in their countries, but South Africa’s is still trying to garner support.

South Africa’s incentive offers qualifying companies a 150% tax deduction on their operational costs of R&D. However, between its inception in 2006 and the middle of last year, fewer than 1,000 companies had applied, and the applications of about 190 had been approved. Businesses complain that the process is too slow and bureaucratic, and the scheme is currently under-review in an effort to improve its efficacy.

In Australia, this incentive translates into a 45% refundable tax offset on R&D spend for a company with a turnover of less than Aus$20-million which is in a tax-loss situation. For other eligible

companies, this could be a 40% non-refundable tax offset. According to the latest budget statements, in 2015-16 R&D tax incentives cost the Australian government Aus$4.7-million (R51.7- million).

The order of magnitude difference between the South African research system and Australian’s explains the surprise – still present in Australia – that both countries were selected to host the SKA.

Australia has been a world leader in radio astronomy since it began converting its radar systems – a part of Allied defenses during World War Two – into radio telescopes. While South Africa also had expertise in radar, until 2007 its only radio telescope was at the Hartebeeshoek Radio Astronomy Observatory. In 2007, the country began building prototype telescopes to showcase its radio astronomy engineering ability.

But in 2012, the international SKA Organisation, the entity co-ordinating the pre-construction of the telescope, decided to split the site of the SKA between Australia and South Africa, following what was – for the science community – a relatively fraught bid campaign.

The SKA, which will comprise thousands of dishes and antennas in Australia and on the African continent, will attempt to answer some of science and humanity’s most baffling questions, such as: Is there life on other planets, how to galaxies form, and what is dark matter?

It will be the largest scientific instrument on Earth, and the most expensive. Initial estimates put the radio telescope at more than EUR2-billion. The first phase, known as SKA 1, is capped at EUR650- million, with construction planned to begin in 2018.

In the run up to the decision, both Australia and South Africa built precursor telescopes to show their scientific and engineering capability. South Africa’s 64-dish MeerKAT telescope is being built, with 16 dishes to be unveiled at the end of this month (June). The 36-dish Australian SKA Pathfinder (Askap) is currently being commissioned. Both countries have developed “radio quiet” sites to host these telescopes. South Africa’s is in the Northern Cape, while Australia’s is in the Shire of Murchison in Western Australia.

However, while MeerKAT will form part of SKA 1 – with another 133 dishes planned in addition to the 64 dishes that will be on the ground at the beginning of next year – Askap will not. Australia will, instead, host about 130,000 dipole antennas, which look like 6ft-tall Christmas trees built out of thick wire. This was another blow for a country that thought it was a shoe-in to host the entirety of the SKA.

Australian officials maintain that they have a “no regrets” policy with regards to the construction of Askap, although there is no guarantee that this precursor will be included in the SKA.

“Big science is expensive,” says Peter Klinken, the chief scientist for the state of Western Australia, where their portion of the SKA will be built. The amounts required for the SKA are “not that stunning” when compared to Australia’s science and research budget, he says. He puts the total amount put into radio astronomy by the state and the commonwealth government at Aus$850- million (R9.35-billion).

South Africa, however, holds up astronomy, and the SKA, as a flagship project and geographic advantage focus area. It is considered a high-skills area of science, with the ability to boost technical development and skills in the country. In comparison to the science undertaken during apartheid, such as munitions and uranium enrichment, radio astronomy is a relatively benign science to fund with government money.

The MeerKAT’s price tag is about R2-billion, but there are other funding boosts, such as astronomy research chairs in universities and the establishment of the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy, among others. This makes the country’s total spend on astronomy difficult to quantify. It is, however, less than R9.35-billion.

But perhaps the most fundamental difference between the South African and Australian research system is one of redress. South Africa’s science policies are geared towards human capital development and including previously disadvantaged people in a system that has historically been white and male.

The latest available figures show that academia in South Africa still has a long way to go before it is representative of the country’s population. Black women, the largest demographic group in South Africa, accounted for 12% of the total number of humanities, social science and natural science researchers in universities in 2013-14. White men held the largest percentage at 28%, followed by white women (27%) and black men (18%). Indian men and women (both at 4%) and Coloured men and women (both at 3%) held substantially lower percentages.

In her 2014 budget vote, science and technology minister Naledi Pandor announced that the NRF would increase the ratio of black graduate students funded from 63% in 2013-14 to 71% in 2016- 17, and the ratio of women funded from 53% to 55%.

While this is an issue in South Africa, it does not appear to be one in Australia’s science, research and innovation space. While there is a push to achieve parity for women in research positions in Australia, inclusion of aboriginal peoples within the science system is not flagged as a high priority.

When asked if there were quotas regarding the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the innovation space, Dalidakis said: “No. At this white settlement, we were very good at killing off indigenous Australians.”

While Dalidakis’ comments cannot be extrapolated to the whole of Australia, that government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy’s five priority areas are jobs, land and economy; children and schooling; safety and wellbeing; culture and capability; and remote Australia strategies. Science, research and innovation are not included.

Wild’s trip to Australia was funded by the Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

This article was first published in the Gordon Institute of Business Science’s publication Acumen.

Ethical issues dog genetic testing and biobanks

IT COULD change the way disease is diagnosed and treated: millions of human tissue samples, their information stored in vast databases, allowing health researchers to trawl for patterns.

The patterns could point to disease risk among population groups, and could one day lead to the possibility of personalised medicine. This sort of research is particularly important for Africa, whose populations are caught between infectious diseases, such as malaria, on the one hand, and lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes, on the other. Africans have historically been neglected in the field of genetic research.

“The unique genome dynamics in African populations have an important role to play in understanding human health and susceptibility,” Wits University’s Prof Michele Ramsay, chairwoman of the South African Society for Human Genetics, wrote in 2012.

For more, find the article — originally published in Business Day — here.

Abalobi app gives SA fishers data they need

A smartphone app that logs data on fish catches is giving small-scale fishers in South Africa hope they can persuade the government to allocate them more of what they regard as their traditional fishing rights.

Abalobi, the app which is named for the isiXhosa phrase abalobi bentlanzi,meaning “someone who fishes”, aims to give small-scale fishers the data to empower themselves and convince others.

Co-produced by the University of Cape Town, traditional fishers and the new small-scale fisheries unit in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), the app lets fishers log their catches. They can record what they caught, when, where, using what method and how much they sold the fish for, among other things.

For more, find the article — originally published in The Guardian — here.

Break-ups, body clocks and the mad mob: ESOF16 Day 3

It’s going to be a long time before I sit through another closing ceremony like that of ESOF2016. Usually, in a post chronicling of the day, I’d offer you some form of chronological structure, but this was just too good: tinged with entertainment, nostalgia and a serving a discomfort.

We shuffled into the hall like disinclined cattle – it had been a long day – and there were about three dozen women (and two men) forming a semi-circle on stage. They watched us take our seats, and began to sing. As the choir warbled the first bars of close-harmony a-capella, I flushed with flashbacks from my all-girls school education, where crowd torture by reedy voice was part of the offering. There was the wave of relief when they all hit the same note, the cringe when we weren’t sure if they did, and then we heard what they were singing: modern break-up songs.

A Manchester choir was singing break-up songs to a predominantly European audience, a month after their country decided to leave the European Union. It was priceless, with strains of “Am I going to be an optimist about this?” and “Hello from the other side” filling the red-velvet cushioned hall.

Here’s a short video of it:



I recognise this is funny to me ’cause I’m not British or European, but the world might be a better place if nations serenaded each other more often. It could be a whole new form of diplomacy.

The next EuroScience Open Forum will take place in 2018 in Toulouse, France.

Although not quite as startling as the closing ceremony, this third and final day also offered some surprises, namely the best sessions I’ve been to this ESOF. Some of them got so interesting that I had to stop live tweeting them and take more careful notes for the many stories that the sessions germinated.

It started, rather ironically, with an early morning session about hacking your sleep cycle. Most of the presenters admitted that it was too early for them and there was a certain camaraderie in the fact that all of us, speakers included, were rather disgruntled at being awake.

For many of us, that is completely justified: our body has a certain rhythm (the circadian rhythm) which is unique to each of us. Some people are larks, some people are night owls.

Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford University, says: “Earth’s environment is profoundly different as we rotate on our axis, and our body has adapted to these demands.”

For a long time, it was thought that this natural internal rhythm was regulated by the brain. But researchers have found that every cell in the body – fat, liver, muscle cells, you name it – has the ability to “generate its own master clock”, Foster says. These cells all have a 24-hour cycle of their own, so your body is more of a “circadian network” than a servant of a time-keeping brain.

When this network is out of whack, things start going wrong.

Disrupting the links between different clocks causes metabolic problems, says Dr Akhilesh Reddy from the University of Cambridge.

“Jet lag, for example, as you’re adjusting, you almost become diabetic in the way you handle glucose,” he says. You’re also more susceptible to viruses and more at risk of other diseases, which has serious implications for people who do shift work or are perpetually jetlagged.

While people in those sorts of jobs require more targeted interventions, if you, dear reader, think your sleep rhythm is off kilter, Alexis Webb suggested some cool apps to help you out, such as Night Shift on iOS9 and myCircadianClock.

The session on the “mad mob myth” also offered food for thought – and stories. According to Martyn Amos, of Manchester Metropolitan University, the idea of the “mad mob” is a “zombie idea”: it just won’t die.

The consensus of the panel is that there is actually no such thing as a mad mob, a group of people who through osmosis or “infection” (I’m speaking figuratively) take on a hive brain mentality.

“There’s this idea that everyone is motivated in the same way, trying to achieve the same goals, but there is no proof that this is actually happening,” says Otto Adang, a behavioral specialist with the Police Academy of the Netherlands.

This is an important area of research, particularly for South Africa where we have seen a spike in the number of protests, most of which turn violent.

“People make choices,” he says. “In the old theories, people were being swept away. [But the truth is] consciously or subconsciously, each individual is making choices and not everyone is making the same choice.”

Usually, he says, only a minority is violent – “If it’s 10%, it’s a lot. Usually less.” Others may support the ones who are violent, but they do not actually perpetrate acts of violence.

Adang also distinguishes between the causes of violence in a protest and the escalation of violence. “Friction” – a jostling of agendas and behaviours between police and protests, for example – can trigger violence, or what Adang calls “young male syndrome” in which, well, young men go looking for a fight.

Escalation is usually premised on a perception of getting away with it: if individuals in the protesting crowd think that they can get away with the violence without the risk of consequence, then you’re more likely to see stones being thrown.

But ultimately, it comes down to individual choices.

Awkwardness, the bugs in your body and Twinkling satellites: ESOF16 Day 2

The second day of a conference is when things start to get awkward.

On the first day, with your misguided sense of exuberance and nervous energy, you try to meet everyone. You insert your ready-to-be-shaken hand into circles of people like a knife in a birthday cake. (This is also the day when most people contract that strange foreign illness they invariably take home and share with their nearest and dearest.)

By day two, the weariness has started to settle behind your eyes, your jaded opinions of the world have returned, and you do not remember a single name of the dozens upon dozens of people you threw yourself at the day before.

Enough time has also passed – and accumulated shared experience as you continue bump into each other – that you’re too embarrassed to say you don’t know their name. You play the dangerous game of trying to force an encounter between two people whose names you don’t know in the hope that they’ll introduce themselves.

What this invariably means is that, if you’re me, you start to avoid people in order to circumvent almost-certain social awkwardness. The good news is that, if this happens at a science conference, there’s great research to hear about instead.

For example, did you know that 1.5kg of your body mass is bacteria? This “poorly understood micro-ecosystem in our bodies is fundamentally important in almost every aspect of our physiology”, said Eran Elinav, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. “Almost any large-scale multi-factoral disease has been linked to our microbiome.”

This is particularly true for obesity, a global pandemic that grew slowly in front of our eyes over the last century. In 2014, according to World Health Organisation figures, there were 1.9-billion overweight adults on the planet, and 600-million of those were obese. Obesity has also been linked to many other diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and a number of cancers.

Despite knowing the extent of the problems, it is incredibly difficult to lose weight for many, many, many reasons.

Elinav pointed to the fact that many of our diets are based on the idea of nutritional grading systems (calories, glycemic index (GI)), and then diets are contructed around these systems. GI is a measure of the effect foods have on the amount of sugar in your food. You can read more about it here. The long and the short of it, according to traditional wisdom: high GI = bad (because the food you eat is converted quickly to glucose, your blood turns into (figurative) syrup and it isn’t good for you). Low GI = good (because then your food is absorbed slowly over time, releasing glucose in manageable doses).***

And here was the first shock to my system (it did what the bad conference coffee had failed to achieve): by testing of thousands of people, Elinav found that the GI system held true for the average, it was not true for the individual.

Upon eating a certain food and then being monitored: “Some [people] spike to near diabetic levels, others don’t,” Elinav said. But statistics give us the average, which smooths out these extremes.

But how does that links to micro-organisms in our gut? “The microbiome was the biggest feature to determine the body’s response to food,” he said.

“It makes no sense [to use this index] because each of us has a different response to food. In our opinion, based on these results, a one-size fits all diet cannot be effective.”

Since our genetics and microbiomes are all different, that makes sense, neh? That said, there are some thing all diets agree on: moderate exercise, less sugar, smaller portions.

Unfortunately, “moderation” and “balance” are seldom the words people want to hear when it comes to a silver bullet for a pandemic.

There is something that science funders like to hear, though, and that is “small” and “cheap”. And that is what the Twinkle Space Mission plans to offer: a small, low-cost satellite, which aims to analyse planets when it is launched into low-earth orbit in 2018.

“There are no dedicated satellites analysing the planets we already know about, Twinkle project manager Marcell Tessenyi said. “Twinkle will be focusing on that.”

Just over two decades ago, we thought that the sun’s planets were unique, but the Kepler mission dashed our egocentricity. These days, we’re finding exoplanets at an alarming rate and they are fulfilling all of feverish fictional dream and wishes: a planet of diamond, possibly habitable ones, even a giant one with three orbiting suns.

And Twinkle wants to do all of its space-based planet gazing for about $65-million. (In the space world, this is a bargain.)

The UK’s Twinkle mission caught my attention because, aside from the fantastic and endearing name, it is “not pushing scientific capabilities”, Tessenyi said.

It feels as though everyone is trying to “push the boundaries” these days: the biggest, the smallest, the fastest, the whatever-est, how far we can see, how small we can cut. While this technological drive is great, there is a lot of important and exciting science to be done with the technology we already have. I mean, that’s why we developed it, isn’t it?



*** I fact-checked this with the fantastic Anina Mumm from SciBraai and she says it would be better to say it like this:


GI is a measure of how quickly the sugars in foods are absorbed into your bloodstream. You can read more about it here.

High GI foods can be bad because the sugars are so simple that they are absorbed into your bloodstream very quickly i.e. they spike your blood sugar, which can contribute to quicker fat storage if you don’t need all of the energy contained in the sugar right away. Spikes also lead to crashes in blood sugars soon after eating, which causes cravings for more sugar, leading to a cycle that fuels obesity. Over the long term, high blood sugars put strain on the body’s insulin response, which may lead to type 2 diabetes.

Low GI foods are considered healthier because the sugars therein are complex and take longer to break down, thus getting absorbed into your bloodstream slower and providing sustained energy over a longer time rather than in one quick burst – that’s the “fuller for longer” idea.


The fine print: I am at ESOF16 thanks to a Nature Travel Grant, and my accommodation is covered by the SKA Organisation.

Gravitational waves and the road to a Nobel prize

The question on the lips of participants of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting was not if the detectors of gravitational waves would win a nobel prize for their work. It was a matter of when. The Nobel prize for physics will be announced within the next 100 days.

On 11 February this year, scientists from the LIGO collaboration announced that they have detected gravitational waves. This was followed up by a second detection last month. The waves were caused by giant black holes merging in events that took place more than a billion years ago.

Gravitational waves are distortions in space and time that, rather than the force of gravity, explain the movement of planets, stars and galaxies. In his 1916 theory of General Relativity, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of these waves, linking space and time.

“It’s been 100 years [since Einstein predicted gravitational waves],” said Nobel prize winner George Smoot. “It was a long argument that went on for a long time: for the theory, it was 40 years of arguing [whether they exist], and then the experiments involved 60 years of arguing.”

Their detection “opens up a whole new era … a new branch of astronomy”, Smoot said on the sidelines of the Lindau meeting, which was dedicated to physics.

LIGO, which stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, is a system of two detectors, one in Louisiana and the other in Washington.

Each detector involves two 4km tunnels that meet at right angles (like an L). A laser beam is split to run down the two tunnels, and is then reflected back and forth downt he tunnels. There is a detector where the two arms meet. If there are no gravitational waves, the laser beams cancel each other out at the detector, because the laser beams have both travelled the same distance. But if there is a ripple in space time, the distance travelled by the beams differs slightly, and this is picked up by the detector.

Think of two people on opposite sides of the equator who start walking towards the North Pole: they will meet eventually, not because there is a force pulling them together, but because the Earth is curved. The same idea applies to the rest of the universe: planets, stars and galaxies moves in certain ways because space itself is curved.

Although LIGO has been around since 2002, it only detected these gravitational waves after a multi-million dollar overhaul.

Smoot, who received his Nobel prize for the detection of the cosmic microwave radiation background, said that the next 20 years would involve improving detectors and observatories and creating new ones for “gravity wave astronomy”.

“Up to now, we’ve been deaf to gravitational waves, but now we can hear them,” David Reitze, LIGO executive director at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), said at the announcement of the first detection in February. “We’ll hear things we expected to hear … But also things we never expected.”

Wild was a recipient of the Academy of Science of South Africa’s Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting fellowship

This article first appeared in the Sunday Independent on 3 July 2016.

Mentorship: the route to networks, upliftment, science

“Mentorship is important in all fields, but it’s particularly important in science,” says Dr George Smoot. Ten years ago, Smoot won the Nobel prize for physics, after he discovered the cosmic microwave radiation background, the ancient radiation left over from the Big Bang.

Last week, he was one of 29 Nobel laureates who, along with about 400 postgraduate students from 80 different countries including 11 from South African, descended on the German town of Lindau. The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, in its 66th year, aims to bring together Nobel laureates and young scientists to inspire and share knowledge, as well as form networks and collaborations.

“The really most important thing is to see people who are doing good science, and see what standards they have, how they check their work, how seriously they take it, and how they interact their colleagues,” Smoot says. “It’s like sportsmanship in sports. The real point is to develop societal skills on how do you actually operate in a world in which there are big commercial activities, where you’re competing, but you’re also collaborating. That’s very important stuff that you [learn] from having good mentors.”

The concept of mentorship, however, is not intrinsic to South Africa’s academic space – or industry, for that matter.

While Rosanne Diab, the executive officer of the Academy of Sciences of South Africa, agrees that mentorship is “absolutely critical to one’s success in a career”, “the whole idea of mentorship is not something that’s common in many of the disciplines, particularly humanities and social sciences”. While there are examples of good mentorship, the process is not formalised in South Africa’s universities.

“A mentor is like a supervisor who you look up to, but also a life coach … someone to help you through,” Diab says.

She points to the department of science and technology’s internship programme, which each year places unemployed science graduates into internships within the department’s agencies and units. “Many of these graduates have excellent academic qualifications, but are unable to find a job,” Diab says.

“If you explore further, you’ll find that they are lacking a network, a mentorship to help them and connect them, guide them through this process.

“It’s not their qualifications. It’s their network.”

This lack of network and mentorship affects previously disadvantaged students keenly, particularly black women.

The latest National Survey of Research and Experimental Development Survey, released in May, found black women accounted for 12% of researchers at universities in South Africa in 2013-14. Despite being the largest demographic group in the country, there were just more than 2,100 black women researchers in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. There were 18,212 researchers in the higher education sector in 2013-14.

White men accounted for the largest percentage at 28%, followed by white women (27%) and black men (18%). Indian men and women (both at 4%) and Coloured men and women (both at 3%) held substantially lower percentages. Black women academics also had the lowest percentage of PhDs.

Asked to comment on these statistics, Dr Nomalanga Mkhize, a history lecturer at Rhodes University, said last month that she attained her doctorate because she was supported by her then-head of department Prof Paul Maylam. “You have to actively take an interest in black women and help them through. Often black women don’t think that it is something they could go for…. I got my masters and my first teaching job because the head of department wanted to give me a chance,” Mkhize said. “He could see that the history department at Rhodes [University] was heading for retirement [because the professors were nearing retirement], so he got young people in.”

Thomas Ellerbeck, a member of the board of the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting, says: “The world is much more complex than it was 10 years ago,” he says. “Getting different views on your behaviour, on how you make decisions, it helps you to develop and grow. This is not only something for people in academia and universities. It’s also in business.

There is a point in young people’s lives or businesses when they have to make important decisions, and it is useful to have someone to advise them, he says.

“There are different types of mentorship. The most important thing is that there is interaction, that both are talking and challenging themselves. In a good interaction, both benefit from different perspectives, different ages, different life experiences,” Ellerbeck. “I think you should formalise it a little bit, though, otherwise it could be like a ‘coffee talk’.”

Mentorship, like society and science, is evolving. Smoot says that in the past, it was important because a lot of science and laboratory techniques were passed down as “lore”. “There are plain textbooks that explained physics to you, there are not so many textbooks that explain to you how to be a theorist. There are almost no textbooks that explain to you how to be an experimentalist,” Smoot says.

“It’s actually seeing how people do things, how they approach [problems[, how they figure out what kind of projects to work on, how they deal with the public,” he says. “Mentorship turns out to be extremely important.”

Ellerbeck says that he knows a number of people who say they “have to do” mentorship, as though it was an unpleasant task. “If you ‘have to do [it]’, then you shouldn’t do it,” he says. “You should really see this as a chance for both [sides] to grow.”

But it helps if the person being mentored has an idea what their concerns are, Ellerbeck says. “But, because I’m older and probably more experienced, I can be challenged with your questions. In the end, it must also help me.”

Wild was a recipient of the Academy of Science of South Africa’s Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting fellowship

This article first appeared in the Sunday Independent on 3 July 2016.

Manchester, robot cars and the apocalypse: ESOF16, Day 1

There’s a bright-eyed eagerness to the first day of a conference. People bustle from session to session, take notes while speakers talk, and are prepared to wait their turn in the line for coffee.

It won’t last.

In two short days, the polite veneer rubs off. The coffee queue will become a mosh pit, all elbows and crazy-eyed feral grins. Session attendance begins to drop in favour of ‘business meetings’ (which could be naps, catching up on the work you’ve been missing, or tending to a coffee-related injury), and rather than meticulous note-taking, we’re try to make a mental note of the speaker’s name.

But on day one of the EuroScience Open Forum, everyone was still putting their best foot forward, including the bustling city of Manchester around them. The sun even shone for about 10 minutes.

Now, let’s be honest, having a European science conference in a British city a month after the United Kingdom with some colourful language and rhetoric decided to quit the European Union was a bit /cough/ awkward. But, in suitably British fashion, everyone adorned the proverbial stiff upper lip and got on with it.

“At its core, ESOF is a European event, and Manchester and the university will remain irrevocably part of Europe,” Prof Dame Nancy Rothwell, Manchester University vice-chancellor, told the opening ceremony on Sunday night. It must be said, though, the unspoken sentiment hanging over the room like a cloud was that 52% of UK voters did not agree with her.

That cloud could, of course, been the result of the smoke machine that kept the event atmospheric, complemented by a riff from FatBoy Slim (something I don’t think I’ve ever heard at a event in my years as a science journalist).

And then there was the science.

Let’s start with the bad news: pandemics are getting more frequent and they are getting more severe. That is not fear mongering, that’s the consensus of the panel “The next plague: preparing for global pandemics”, bringing together experts from industry, the media and government.

As multi-awarding winning writer Laurie Grant said: “We’re just going to have a very calm, laid back discussion about the apocalypse.”

Zika, Ebola, SARS – we are seeing an uptick in mass disease outbreaks, for – in retrospect – obvious reasons: people are moving to live in cities which are beginning to burst at the seams, they travel to other cities more often and as the world’s population grows we’re encroaching into more natural wilderness and disrupting natural ecosystems – urbanisation, globalisation and, er, destroying habitats-isation. So, we know this is coming: what do we do?

Well, it’s complicated. No one – government, industry, NGOS – can to it alone, that’s for sure. There are huge logistical challenges. Who has the money, in advance, to prepare vaccines for a crisis that hasn’t happened? Sir Andrew Witty (from pharmaceutical giant GSK) made an important point: Let’s say there is a vaccine sample, and it’s kept on ice until it’s needed: “Do we even have a billion glass vials” on Earth for when we need to mass produce it?

Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer for another big industry player Johnson&Johnson, said: “In peace time, we have to prepare for war.” He mentioned a collaboration between government, industry and research institutions to have vaccines/research at the proof of concept stage, so that it is easier to ramp up its development.

But perhaps the most interesting point of this 90-minute panel – the one that will linger in my brain long after I’ve fled the shores of Old Blighty – arose from presenter James Gallagher’s question: “Are we fixating on vaccines, where there should be other solutions?”

The first ebola dead was a boy just after Christmas 2013, Garret answered. It took “nine months of death and horror before there was even a state of emergency”. International resources were deployed from about October 2014, she says. But Liberia’s outbreak had peaked before then, and was on the decline. “Liberia took care of Liberia,” Garret said. “It was social mobilisation on a scale unprecedented for them.” They did that without the latest technology, which only arrived later.

I started with the bad news, but I’ll end with the good: by piecing together the information I’ve gleaned at ESOF16, the robot over lords will allow me to keep doing my job.

Times are tight for people in creative industries aka “creatives” – incidentally, that’s a term I deplore. It sounds as though I shloomph through the world in hemp drawstring pants, while I sip spinach juice from a paper mache champagne flue. Or I’m in a spangly outfit, drinking actual champagne on a yacht. It gives people mixed signals. Neither are true. Someone would have to pay me substantially more if it was.

As I was saying, those creative industries are unlikely to become redundant when the machines take over our jobs.

In the session “Flying cars, quantum computers – where disruptive technology meets regulation”, Manchester University’s Prof Nikolay Mehandjiev said that creative professions were more likely to survive disruptive technologies that many others.

“Data scientists are in demand today, but in time they will be replaced by machines. If I were a taxi driver, I’d be reprofiling today, not waiting for autonomous cars,” he said.

Disruptive technologies “change our society, the way we live, work, entertain ourselves”. Some jobs become redundant. For example, when did you last meet a blacksmith?

Most innovators are told to think about what their audience wants, to model their offering, innovation, hoverboard, whatever, around what people want. That is usually sound advice.

But disruptive technologies actually do the complete opposite: it’s a technology push, not a customer demand. If you had asked people before cars what kind of vehicle they wanted, “they would have asked for faster electric horses”, Mehandjiev said.

When asked who in the audience wanted autonomous cars on the roads, it was a complete shock – a complete shock, I tell you – when everyone raised a hand.

It’s easier to regulate when there’s consensus, said Mairead McGuinness, vice-president of the European Union. But when the technology is controversial, well, that’s a whole other sword fight.

“In this world, there’s little space for the centre,” she said. “People take polarised views. We try to find a middle ground and get consensus on the new technology… if it’s controversial that’s where the real problems lie, it’s difficult to regulate technology development with a controversial spin.”

Unfortunately, the latest technologies – the ones most likely to disrupt societies and change lives – are the controversial: Crisper-Cas9, synthetic biology and gene editing; big data and privacy; and artificial intelligence and the upcoming robot invasion.

Science and Technology Prof Sheila Jasanoff made a very important point – although, for the sake of journalistic ethics, it is my solemn duty to inform you that she said it at the opening ceremony and was not actually in the room during this regulation discussion. But what she said has bearing:

These days we say “everything is changing”. “But perhaps we don’t want everything to change. Inequality, yes. But collaboration? Compassion? No.”


The fine print: I am at ESOF16 thanks to a Nature Travel Grant, and my accommodation is covered by the SKA Organisation.