The Honourable Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane delivered the following address at the launch of the HIRAX telescope last Friday:
Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, Vice-Chancellor: UKZN, and his Executive
Dr Pillay, Deputy CEO of the National Research Foundation NRF, and the NRF Executive
Dr Rob Adam, Managing Director: SARAO and his Executive.
Mr Takalani Rathiyaya, Deputy Head: Economic Development: eThekwini Municipality.
Ladies and gentlemen
I am most pleased to be here today to launch the Hydrogen Intensity and Real Time Analysis eXperiment telescope project.
Last month we launched the MeerKat, which is a major milestone in the development of the Square Kilometre Array. When completed the SKA is going to be the largest Telescope in the world and it is going to foster collaboration amongst scientists from all over the world. Contrary to the narrow and prejudiced belief, science is not a museum of finished creations whose beauty should be credited to a specific group of people; it is rather an enterprise that is crafted from age to age, helping humanity to understand the universe better. As the eminent scientist, Freeman Dyson, observed in his essay called “The Scientist as Rebel” published in the New York Review of Books: “The vision of science is not specifically Western. It is no more Western than it is Arab or Indian or Japanese or Chinese. Arabs and Indians and Japanese and Chinese had a big share in the development of modern science. And two thousand years earlier, the beginnings of ancient science were as much Babylonian and Egyptian as Greek. One of the central facts about science is that it pays no attention to East and West and North and South and black and yellow and white. It belongs to everybody who is willing to make the effort to learn it.”
The project we are launching is a perfect example of the willingness of scientists from different parts of the work to learn and understand the universe through scientific tools. The HIRAX Project will seek to answer two of today’s most relevant questions in the field of astronomy – what is Dark Energy and what are Fast Radio Bursts.
The research imperatives of the HIRAX project include the mapping of the distribution of neutral hydrogen gas in the universe to learn about dark energy, finding new pulsars and probing the evolution of gas in galaxies. To tackle these research challenges HIRAX researchers will undertake a technical programme that involves building the instrument, carrying out science observations, analysing the raw data and scientific interpretation of the data.
The Department of Science and Technology strategic plan 2015 to 2020 has the following priorities amongst others: boosting our human capital development, for science, technology and innovation, with a special focus on transformation; promoting government, business and university investment in Research and Development; translating more effectively the outcomes of our investments in research into the development of new products and services for the South African economy. The HIRAX project seeks to establish an Interferometer Array telescope consisting of multiple dishes at the SKA Site in the Karoo desert, here in South Africa. The elaborate process of establishing this instrument will break-down barriers and create equity within the field of astrophysics by providing training through all phases of its implementation; including instrumentation development, instrument deployment, theoretical modelling and simulations and addressing Big Data challenges. Students involved in this project will be ideally placed to lead the next generation of world-class science projects. I was pleased to note that to date the project has trained 5 PhDs, 5 MSc and Honours students.
In addition to socio-economic gains through education, opportunities will extend to local industry through partnerships in various aspects of hardware development and instrument building. Much of the hardware will be developed and procured from local engineering firms, thereby growing the local manufacturing capacity in radio astronomy technologies. The data sets developed by HIRAX will lead to partnerships with the IT industry in the development of new algorithms for Big Data challenges. This project is a good demonstration of how we are making the priorities outlined in our strategic plan a reality.
The HIRAX project is aligned to the DST National Multi-wavelength Strategy (2016) as it addresses key scientific questions in each of the priority science areas identified by the Strategy, namely: Cosmology, Galaxy Evolution, and Stellar & Compact Object Astrophysics. Furthermore, HIRAX makes strong connections with the Strategy’s key programmatic areas in Human Capital Development and transformation, education and outreach, astronomy infrastructure and instrumentation, innovation, Big Data science, theoretical modelling and simulation, and international collaboration.
This project also compliments other South African led radio experiments to increase South Africa’s reputation as the world leader in Radio Astronomy. The project will have numerous synergies and complementarity with MeerKAT, thus adding significant value to a major SA investment, and further elevating the Karoo site as a destination for world-class astronomy telescopes. It will also compliment the HERA experiment as they conduct research in Hydrogen analysis.
Countries that have developed at a faster rate have always been countries with a strong innovation culture driven by investments in science and technology. Such investments are important in retaining and attracting the most talented researchers. The HIRAX project is a major international collaboration, with at least eight South African institutions participating, and many other international institutions. And I believe this is the best way that we can get our young people in South Africa to have an interest in science, technology and innovation.
Yesterday I spent a day with young high school learners from the rural part of this province. These are young and enthusiastic young children with lots of potential whose dream is to extract themselves from the poor conditions in which they live. It is my wish that they too can dream beyond their immediate needs and start to wonder about their place in the universe. The main reason for my visit was to help expose these young learners to careers that are possible for them in the area of science and technology. I told them that it is through their participation that our science and technology system will be broadened and enriched. The knowledge that we produce today will be their inheritance. I told them that “One of the central facts about science is that it pays no attention to East and West and North and South and black and yellow and white. It belongs to everybody who is willing to make the effort to learn it” and that they too can be the inheritors of the large body of science knowledge. The investments on research and projects such as HIRAX will produce knowledge that will form part of the inheritance for the learners that I have spoken about. I am simply saying that science at the end of the day is about the people in a community of humanity anywhere in the world.
As I said during the launch of the MeerKat last Month, to those who always wonder why projects like this are important, I will say to them in the words of the American cosmologist, Neil Tyson that “Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself that no other force in society can rival, not only does that get people interested in sciences and all the related fields, [but] it transforms the culture into one that values science and technology, and that’s the culture that innovates. And in the 21st century, innovations in science and technology are the foundations of tomorrow’s economy.”
I thank you