Top international SKA scientist joins Rhodes

Daily Dispatch, by David MacGregor, Port Alfred Bureau

RHODES University is reaching for the stars after a top international scientist accepted a prestigious academic post that will see him splitting his time between Grahamstown and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Rhodes academics played a key role in helping South Africa crack the nod as the perfect place for the scientific world to invest billions in the SKA, but the appointment of acclaimed European radio astronomer Professor Oleg Smirnov is the cherry on top.

“It’s very difficult to overstate the importance of this development, so excuse the over-abundance of superlatives – but megascience is coming to Africa,” he predicted.

He said key players in the bid, like Rhodes University honorary doctor- ate Dr Bernie Fanaroff and GrahamstownSKA chief scientist Professor Justin Jonas, deserved enormous credit for their efforts.

“To have gone from virtually nothing – from what seemed a completely madcap, pie-in-the-sky idea – 10 years ago, to MEERKAT construction and the SKA site today, should be lauded as one of this country’s great success stories. I’m proud to be associated with these people!”

Smirnov said SKA’S benefits to the country and continent would go far beyond international prestige, infrastructural investment and job creation.

“For every future scientist using the SKA, there will be dozens of highly-trained engineers and technicians who will have been involved in building it and who will then feed these skills into the high-tech economy.

“There is bound to be an influx of top international research talent, which is a great boon for local universities, and the educational system in general.”

Another benefit would be increased awareness of science, leading to more kids studying science in school – and eventually to more highly-skilled graduates entering the economy.

Much bigger and more powerful than any other existing scientific instrument, the SKA represented a revolutionary jump in world capabilities, Smirnov said.

“It’s like switching from a scooter to a sports car. With this instrument we should be able to answer some of the most fundamental questions about the origins and nature of our universe.”

He predicted other mouthwatering findings too.

“Perhaps even more exciting will be the so-called serendipitous discoveries – the real surprises – what Donald Rumsfeld called the ‘unknown unknowns’.”

In his new position as the prestigious SARCHI SKA chair in Radio Astronomy Techniques & Technologies at Rhodes, Smirnov has been tasked with figuring out how to turn scrambled signals measured by the telescope into high fidelity images of the sky.

He will divide his time between the SKA office in Cape Town and the Department of Physics and Electronics at Rhodes University.

Although Rhodes is the smallest university in South Africa with less than 1% of all university students, it already holds five Department of Science and Technology chairs that are managed by the National Research Foundation.

“Rhodes has always punched above its weight in research, and has half a century’s legacy of radio astronomy – more than any other South African university,” said Smirnov.

Explaining how he had large shoes to fill thanks to a lot of the key people in the SKA SA project being involved with Rhodes, the respected scientist said by establishing a research chair in instrumental radio astronomy the university was now well ahead of the curve for upcoming years.

“A new revolution in instrumental research is on the way. With my appointment, Rhodes has established a big stake in what is certain to become a booming field of research. South Africa, and Rhodes in particular, will be a very exciting place in the coming years.”

Vice-chancellor Dr Saleem Badat said the university was pleased to have contributed to SKA under the leadership of Dr Faranoff and the secondment of Professor Jonas to the project as chief scientist.

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