Equality is in the stars for South Africans

High school whiz-kid Kate McLachlan fell in love with astronomy by reading about Greek myths and their representation in the stars.

But Thebe Medupe, South Africa's first black astrophysicist, could teach her a thing about African star myths, like the one in which the Milky Way was created when a girl lit her lover's way home by throwing sparks into the sky.

As with most scientific endeavors in South Africa, there has been little African flavor to astronomy - until now. The country's separate universes of black and white are beginning to intersect in the rarified field of astrophysics, thanks to the construction of the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.

The apartheid education system "convinced black people that science did not belong to them," says Mr. Medupe, a 20-something black doctoral candidate and lecturer in astrophysics. "But science belongs to everyone."

Foreign astronomers have long appreciated the exceptional clarity of the night skies and the stillness of the air in South Africa's Karoo plains. That, combined with the paucity of facilities for studying stars in the Southern Hemisphere, gives South Africa "a competitive edge" in the very international world of astronomy, says physicist Case Rijsdijk, who leads educational outreach at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

The SAAO is spearheading a new 33-foot, $30 million South African Large Telescope (SALT) project. The South African government is putting up $11.5 million over 15 years. American, British, German, Polish, and New Zealand universities have raised another $13.5 million. And Japan is investing $2.3 million for new astronomy facilities in South Africa to discover how stars in the Milky Way are born.

Addressing the inequities of South Africa's past, when the "hard" sciences were off limits to blacks, is a key part of the SALT project.

Publicity over SALT has excited the minds of many South Africans. But others may consider astrophysics a luxury unaffordable to African countries with limited budgets for health and education, let alone for leading-edge scientific research of no readily apparent, practical, commercial use.

But "it is also important to maintain a basic competence in flagship sciences such as physics and astronomy for cultural reasons," according to a 1996 government white paper on science and technology. "Not to offer them would be to take a negative view of our future, the view that we are a second-class nation, chained forever to the treadmill of feeding and clothing ourselves."

Medupe agrees, but emphasizes the need to compensate for past wrongs. While his degrees are from the relatively affluent University of Cape Town, the dusty border community of Mafikeng is his home. And his heart is still back there, at the town's University of the North-West.

"As a historically black university, North-West was grossly under-resourced," he says. "Under apartheid, it was not meant to be a research facility."

But he's changing all that. His current crop of four bachelor students majoring in astronomy at UNW is heading into a master's program next year. With four new bachelor students coming in behind them, "that makes the University of the North-West's astrophysics program the largest in the country," says Medupe.

The National Research Foundation sold the SALT project to the cabinet by promising it would yield 'collateral benefits' that would build science and technology in South Africa. Those benefits are to be funded separately from the telescope and will cost about $13.2 million.

SALT will "inspire a generation of South African school children by demonstrating South African capabilities and opportunities in science and technology," according to the National Science Foundation. SALT also is supposed to build astronomy programs at historically disadvantaged universities.

"The University of the North-West will be one of the first to benefit" from the collateral benefits of the telescope project, says Medupe. In particular he expects SALT will fund his teaching position at Mafikeng. At the moment he lectures there for free; only transport between his Cape Town home and Mafikeng is paid by the SAAO.

Medupe says there are not many jobs in his profession. "But when you do astronomy," he adds, "you train in so many things. For example, I am teaching computational physics, to simulate problems and solve differential equations. You get very good at computers. I hope astronomy will uplift people and interest them in research and science generally."

Miss McLachlan, the teenage science whiz, agrees with Medupe that "an interest in astronomy can generally lead young people into science." The 10th-grader from the wealthy Cape Town suburb of Constantia recently defeated older students to take second prize in a national science competition. In her project, she calculated the time it takes Jupiter's four biggest moons to orbit the planet. McLachlan wants to study astrophysics at Oxford, and may turn out to be history's first South African-born female astronomer.

While Medupe had to build his first telescope using lenses from his school's science lab, McLachlan's parents gave her a top-quality amateur telescope last year. She says SALT has caught the imagination of her schoolmates, 14 of whom have joined her in the astronomy club. "We go on field trips. We've been to Sutherland twice," she says referring to the SAAO's main observatory.

While the observatory is working to bring poor schools to Sutherland, it already takes its messages to black and coloured townships with its traveling "StarBus," filled with staffers who help kids make their own quadrants, sundials, and telescopes.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.