Magazine article New African

A World-Leading Project

Magazine article New African

A World-Leading Project

Article excerpt

Bernie Fanaroff is the Square Kilometre Array's former director and is now, following his semi-retirement at the beginning of the year, the project's strategic advisor. He spoke to Stephen Williams about this hugely ambitious project.

Bernie Fanaroff began working on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project 10 years prior to its inception at the beginning of 2003, Previously, he had been the deputy director-general in the South African Presidency, and from 1994 to 1996, head of the office for the Reconstruction and Development Programme during President Mandela's administration.

He then spearheaded the SKA Project that saw South Africa and its African partner countries developing their successful 2003 bid (alongside Australia) to host the SKA.

In his own words, Fanaroff describes SKA as "the world's largest telescope and also the world's largest science instrument". Its importance to Africa is that it is radically changing perceptions of what Africa can do.

"When we first expressed our interest in SKA," Fanaroff recalls, "people in Europe and America were very sceptical. They said 'you can't do science and technology in Africa'. We said yes we can'.

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"And I think we have demonstrated that indeed we can, and I think people are looking at us differently. But I think it is equally important that we are looking at ourselves differently. In Africa we tend to have an inferiority complex at times. We tend to think that we can't compete with Europe or the US in science and technology."

To illustrate this point, Fanaroff mentions that the SKA team in Cape Town developed digital signal processing hardware and flexible computing boards which are now being used bv NASA (the US space agency) for their deep space shots. "I quite like the idea that we are selling technology from Africa to NASA, and not the other way around!"

SKA is a South Africa-based international collaborative project that will be capable of detecting signals emanating from the beginning of the universe.

As with optical telescopes, the larger the instrument, the more detailed and clear the resulting images. The largest optical telescope in the world, the Gran Telescopio Canarias, has an effective collecting area of some 100sq metres.

SKA's array of antennas, working together, will have a collecting area of over one million square metres.

"It will do very exciting science as it is designed to be powerful enough to be able to map the universe going back to quite soon after the Big Bang, looking at the radiation from hydrogen gas which makes up most of the atoms in the universe," Fanaroff explains.

"Hopefully, we can start to explain things like dark matter and dark energy. These are outstandingly important problems for science now because, until a few years ago, we had thought that the universe was made up of mainly atomic matter and photons and energy.

"We now know that that's 4-5% of what's in the universe, the other 95% is made up of dark matter, which is what holds the galaxies together when they spin, and dark energy, which is making the universe expand faster and faster as it grows older."

They may be "outstandingly important problems" for those scientists that are wrestling with theoretical disciplines, but does this work have any relevance in tackling the challenges that Africa faces in terms of development?

Fanaroff is clear that SKA has a crucial role in building Africa's capacity to deal with its own problems. He points to one of SKA's spin-offs, the creation of an African research cloud. …

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