Going where no others have gone before

09 December 2003

Research presentations are commonplace in the run-up to exams and graduation, but the gathering of astrophysicists-in-the-making at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Observatory in late November was a stellar achievement for both the university and the country.

The students, all putting the final touches to their papers and - on the day - defending their theses, make up the first constellation who will graduate from the UCT honours programme in astrophysics and space science, offered under the auspices of the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP).

NASSP, a consortium based at UCT for the next five years, aims to offer students from Africa and beyond the opportunity to do honours and master's programmes under the wings of some of the South Africa's finest scientists. The programme brings together a pantheon of researchers and lecturers from institutions around the country, including UCT's Professors George Ellis and Jean Cleymans.

Eleven honours and six master's students joined the programme this year. They included a sizeable contingent from Kenya, the Sudan, Uganda and Zambia.

At the research presentations in Observatory recently, the 11 honours students - some understandably twitchy - put their work up for scrutiny by classmates, seniors, lecturers and SABC cameras. The group tackled topics such as the "Little Bang" (the scientific recreation of the conditions that existed a thousandth of a second after the Big Bang) and idiosyncratic Luminous Blue Variable (LBV) stars.

And their efforts weathered the interrogations well, reported programme director, Associate Professor Peter Dunsby.

"Judging by the presentations, you wouldn't think that this is honours-level work," said Dunsby. "The quality of the work wouldn't look out of place at a conference."

And that has been a deliberate move on the part of the programme convenors, he added.

"We've trying to train the next generation of professional astronomers, so we really put a lot of emphasis on presentations - both written and oral - and on scientific methodology and techniques."

Things are already looking up for 2004. NASSP has made 17 offers for each of the honours and master's programmes, with a number of this year's honours graduands hoping to move on to master's studies.

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