Bring Nobel Prizes home to Africa

13 June 2014 | Story by Newsroom

Go out and win Nobel Prizes for Africa.

This was Dr Bernie Fanaroff's challenge to graduands at the 12 June afternoon ceremony, devoted to the Faculties of Science and Engineering & the Built Environment.

Orchestrator of South Africa's winning bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) of radio telescopes, 'the world's biggest-ever science project' as orator Professor Alison Lewis described it, Fanaroff addressed graduands shortly after receiving an honorary Doctor of Science degree.

It was thanks to his passion as a radio astronomer and his notable diplomatic skills that Fanaroff was able to bring the SKA project to Africa.

But that was not enough, he said.

'I want us to use the Square Kilometre Array to win Nobel Prizes in Africa ' It requires a bit of tenacity and application, but there is no reason we shouldn't want Nobel prizes to be won by African scientists in Africa. Let's go out and do it.'

Dedicating his honorary degree to the outstanding team that worked hard to bring SKA to South Africa, Fanaroff said there were few better places to inspire and motivate science and engineering graduands, disciplines that underpin the SKA project.

'We live in a country with problems, but problems bring opportunities and it's people like you, well0educated and young, who must seize these opportunities.'

It was a sober message on the day, 28 years ago, that South Africa declared its last State of Emergency.

'It's useful to remind ourselves where we've come from to give perspective on where we want to go,' he noted.


Fanaroff '˜s own career trajectory was fashioned partly as the result of an interesting amalgam of skills and experience. He worked as a radio astronomer for more than a decade and in that time made two major international contributions to science.

One, in 1974, was a breakthrough in the classification of radio galaxies with a British astronomer, Julia Riley. Called the Fanaroff-Riley classification, it's still renowned among astronomers.

He then changed course. It might have been an unlikely choice, but the trade union movement in the troubled 70s and 80s was where Fanaroff learnt his formidable negotiation skills. He helped establish and build the Metal and Allied Worker's Union, later the National Union of Metal Workers.

After a stint in government at the helm of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, he returned to astronomy in 2003 as part of the nascent SKA project. The rest, as they say, is history.

Turning to the future, Fanaroff said big data '“ large, complex data sets '“ was one of the fastest growing global industries: 'SKA will generate data faster than has been done before, and will generate as much data as the entire worldwide web. We're working on spinning off some of the technology and expertise into commercial development, and one I believe to be of great importance is big data.

'MeerKAT and SKA will generate huge amounts of data very fast. There are immense challenges in transporting these data, processing and analysing it and visualising it; all with windmill power usage.'

Big data will be used to underpin the development of smart cities, smart electricity grids and smart health services, and smart everything else.

'US company CISCO recently estimated that this industry will be worth trillions of dollars within a few years. There is no reason South Africa should not be a leading player in this new industry.'

And for the young graduands contemplating their future in the global economy, he had a final word: 'You don't have to go overseas to be global leaders; you can do it here.'

Altogether 136 students graduated from the science faculty (2013: 164), and 134 students from EBE (2013: 131) on 12 June.

Watch June 2014's graduation ceremonies and Bernie Fanaroff's address

Story Helen Swingler. Image by Michael Hammond.

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