Not Rocket Science

South Africa – a galactic centre of world class astronomy.

One of my favourite movies of all time is the 2014 epic science fiction film Interstellar. In a post-modernist world where I see every piece of media with a cynical eye, the sincerity of that film bowled me over instantly.

The sense of scale, wonder, and sheer beauty of the film captured the feelings I have when I think of the cosmos. From the existential angst I get from seeing pictures of Saturn, to the dread that comes with realising the deep time scales that dwarf all of human existence; the film gives me the tingles and keeps my curiosity from going gently into that good night.

I just had that same feeling again recently, not far from me both geographically and in my own work. A few days before writing this, I came across an embargoed press release announcing the discovery of new, balloon-like structures near the centre of the Milky Way. These gigantic objects were spotted using South Africa’s new MeerKAT radio telescope.

MeerKAT radio telescope

Incredible news, I thought, so I contacted the lead researcher, Fernando Camilo, who was more than happy to talk to me about it. I shared in his excitement and his joy was contagious when he told me how “ridiculous” it was that the new MeerKAT telescope has made such an important discovery so soon after it was fully inaugurated in July 2018.

I had visited the telescope while it was under construction in 2016, when the machine had only 16 of it’s planned 64 radio receivers operational. Standing as tall as 20 metres each, the white, dish-shaped receivers pepper the red Karoo landscape, quietly receiving radio waves that herald secrets thousands of light years away.

When engineers and scientists operating MeerKAT pointed the telescope towards the centre of the Milky Way, they did not expect to see anything new as they were testing the telescope to see how well it works. They released a striking image of a very active galactic centre, bright in radio waves, and they noticed a new structure that towered above and below the plane of the Milky Way.

Camilo described it to me as two lobes, hundreds of light years in size, that indicate a violent, energetic event from the central blackhole’s past. Science journalist Sarah Wild explained it beautifully: the balloon-like structures are the “black hole’s consequent belch of radiation,” from all the lumps of space gas it eats up.

I wrote an opinion piece for Noseweek in May 2018 (nose223) – about the incredible science that would come from the MeerKAT telescope. In it I talk about how the telescope’s value should be measured in terms of the quality of the science it produces, rather than metrics such as direct benefit to South African citizens, as in new technologies and job opportunities.

It seems I was not wrong in thinking that MeerKAT would soon find something incredible in space. MeerKAT discovered these newly recorded structures within a month of the full array of 64 radio receivers being turned on.

Notwithstanding, the people responsible for the telescope and activities around it need to justify the cost and effort put into it, such as numbers of people trained with new skills, and direct benefit to surrounding communities. From the looks of it, the MeerKAT and SKA projects have done a good job of that, but how about the wonderful new science to come – already coming out of it.

I am a prisoner to my own imagination and curiosity, and I hope for it to be infectious so that more South Africans get excited by the wonderful work being done in big science projects such as the SKA and MeerKAT.

For me, the sense of awe from the unknown discoveries that we can make with good science, seems like reason enough to invest in good research, and from what I have seen, other benefits usually emerge from good science even if they were not the driving force behind it – curiosity was.

I continue to hope for more amazing science to come as the SKA itself slowly becomes a reality, a continent-spanning telescope built in Africa, and looking into the deep cosmos; from the cradle of mankind to the cradle of the universe!

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Submitted by : Philgecko on 2019-10-09 18:10:43
When one reads of such discoveries by MeerKAT (as well as others), it puts the human condition into perspective.
On the one hand we have those decrying the (unnecessary, to them) expense of such ventures. The money (they say) should rather be spent on improving the quality of life for the poor and needy.
On the other hand we have the curiosity that drives humanity to seek how the natural world and the universe operate. In so doing, new technologies are discovered that improve the quality of life of all humanity. This has been so for centuries.
If the running of the world was left to the spending-on-knowledge naysayers, we might still be living in caves and hunting our food with spears and digging roots from out of the ground.


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