Stellar academics Ellis and Warner receive high honours

14 December 2009

This week UCT will confer honorary degrees (honoris causa) to two of its most distinguished scholars, Emeritus Professors Brain Warner and George Ellis, at the summer graduation ceremony. Although retired, the two are still active scientists (Warner in astronomy and Ellis in cosmology), who last year won Honorary Fellowships from the Royal Society of South Africa.

Emer Prof Brian WarnerWarner stands out as one of the most distinguished scientists to have made South Africa his home. His career spanning some 50 years has produced a "prodigious" scientific output, with 400 scientific papers and 18 books to his name. At least one, Cataclysmic Variable Stars, is considered definitive in its field.

He has also written poetry and his collections were published under the titles Dinosaurs End and Scatological Verse.

Warner has vast work experience on lunar phenomena and astronomy. During his brief years at the University of Texas, he collaborated with Edward Nather to publish the first proper light curve of a visible pulsar, that in the Crab Nebula. That same type of observation - high speed photometry - found its mark in the rapid variations of stars now termed Cataclysmic Variables, where matter streaming from one star builds up around its compact companion. Warner's initial interpretation of the physical situation set the scene for years to come, and he has held the highest status within that research specialty ever since.

He has influenced over many young people and supervised a numbers of doctoral and master's students, some of whom have risen to great success. Warner is regarded by many as foremost in his field, and against whom others may be judged.

In 1997 he was one of the three scholars to deliver an invited discourse at the International Astronomical Union's general assembly in Kyoto, the ultimate accolade the union can bestow upon an individual.

He has produced several researched books, and is considered one of the world's experts on astronomer William Herschel and his son, John. Harry Oppenheimer's Brenthurst Library commissioned him to bring out Flora Herscheliana, a collaborative effort with botanist John Rourke.

He has also served on numerous councils, boards and committees that integrate science with society, including the Council of the South African Museum (later Iziko) and the South African Library.

Emer Prof George Ellis

A UCT alumnus, Ellis is one of the most distinguished scholars this country has produced. In his more than 40 years' work experience, he has produced over 350 articles or chapters in books, and 12 books spanning disciplines as diverse as cosmology, complexity, neural development and the brain, science policy, social development, science and mathematics education, and the relationship between science and religion.

A leader in the areas of general relativity and cosmology, the study of the large-scale structure of the Universe, Ellis has contributed in the development of the singularity theorems with Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, and he has worked on observations in cosmological models, in which he addresses the relationship between theoretical cosmology and cosmological observations. He has written on the topics of emergent universes and 'multiverses'.

Ellis has also written and spoken extensively on topics pertaining to the relationship between science and religion. For that he was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2004. In his work Ellis advocated a balance between the rationality of evidence-based science on the one hand, and phenomena that lie beyond the ability of science to explain. In recent years, however, he has turned his attention towards a complete understanding of the workings of the brain, and the relationship to human behaviour, the intellect, and emotions, and has become an established name in this multi-disciplinary area.

As a critic of the apartheid, he and three colleagues wrote The Squatter Problem in the Western Cape, a scathing review of the plight of homeless people. He also co-authored Low Income Housing Policy in South Africa, an analysis of how to transform the housing situation among black people in Cape Town.

Ellis has received a host of honours, including the award by former President Nelson Mandela of the Star of South Africa, the award of the National Science and Technology Forum for outstanding contributions over a lifetime in science, engineering and technology, the Mapungubwe Award (Silver) from former President Thabo Mbeki, and honorary degrees from three universities. Ellis has worked in various institutions around the world, and was appointed Chair of Applied Mathematics at UCT in 1974. He left 14 years later but returned in 1993 before retiring in 2004.

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