Sandile Ngcobo: Laser sharp

2014-05-04 15:00

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No one expected it to work. Many experts in many countries had tried and failed, and tried again and given up.

So when Professor Andrew Forbes, the head of mathematical optics at the Laser Centre of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) looked at the graph Sandile Ngcobo quietly put on his desk, he knew he was looking at something astonishing.

“Do you know what you’ve done?” he bellowed, his words booming down the CSIR corridors.

Ngcobo had created the world’s first functioning digital laser. One of the emblematic technologies of the modern world, lasers comprise a multibillion-dollar industry. They are used in everything from medical applications such as bloodless surgery to manufacturing, barcoding and even bandwidth.

The problem is that most laser applications require expensive external custom optics that have to be calibrated each time they are used for a different purpose. Instead of putting a spatial light modulator in front of the laser, physicists sought to build one into the device.

Enter Ngcobo with “a novel digital laser that allows intracavity laser beam shaping to be executed on the fly”. Faster, cheaper and more efficient, Forbes described it as a “disruptive technology” that could change traditional manufacturing, communications and electronics.

Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom compared Ngcobo and the four-member CSIR team to other lauded South Africans such as cardiac surgeon Chris Barnard and physicist Allan Cormack.

So how exactly did a young man who grew up in the KwaZulu-Natal village of KwaMafunze and the market town of Eshowe get to revolutionise modern-day technology?

Ngcobo was one of 10 children raised on a correctional services salary, a preciously smart boy with an anomalous interest in science in an underresourced school.

Ngcobo talks about the impact of solar flares on satellite computation, satellite laser ranging, model decomposition and try this one?–?a two-micron, high-power, diode-pumped thulium:yttrium lithium fluoride slab laser?–?with the high-speed confidence most of us have when reciting a recipe for boiled eggs.

But when it comes to the finer points of biography, his voice rises an octave and takes on the awkward pitch of a reticent schoolboy who has forgotten the words of his oral test.

Through the childhood details that can be prised from Ngcobo, there emerges a portrait of a man who is as tenacious as he is smart?–?an out-of-

the-box thinker with a knack for overcoming obstacles.

Albert Einstein once said: “It’s not that I am smarter, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Ngcobo simply never gave up.

Ngcobo says: “My father was an independent man. Whatever needed to be fixed or built, he did himself. He never asked anybody for anything. My father would buy me study aids as he could not answer my science questions. There was nobody in Eshowe who could.”

Later, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Ngcobo commuted long distances and took courses all day with only a 45-minute break during which he routinely went to the computer lab to apply for bursaries.

“I think I applied over 100 times each year. And every time I got a letter back that started ‘I regret to inform you?...’ I have a box with over 300 letters of rejection.”

But Ngcobo has few regrets. In his final year, he was approached by the Hartebeesthoek Radio

Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO). It was looking for a computational physicist, someone with exactly Ngcobo’s skill set?–?computer science, physics and chemistry.

His first job was to rewrite a programme that involved sifting through a million lines of coding.

His predecessors had been working on it for two years. He did it in six months.

So when HartRAO committed to an ambitious satellite ranging project that involved accurately measuring distances to the moon, they sent Ngcobo to Stellenbosch University to further his studies on lasers. After completing his master’s degree in 2006, Ngcobo began working at the CSIR.

In 2010, under Professor Forbes, Ngcobo signed up for a PhD.

His thesis involved an investigation into digital lasers, a project he took up with some pointers from his boss who had spent several years on the subject.

“I just quietly kept going,” says Ngcobo. “People had been looking at it too closely for too long. But I came at it with a different perspective, a fresh approach. Most of the mistakes being made were in terms of programming. I started doing everything from scratch.”

Ngcobo and the team are now focusing on increasing the power of their digital laser, securing a patent and on producing an applied prototype. But according to Forbes, they have overcome the biggest obstacle, the mental barrier: working on the edge of science to create something seemingly impossible.

John F Kennedy one said: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by sceptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.”

Sandile Ngcobo is one of those dreamers.

» This series is supported by Play Your Part, which is a nationwide campaign to inspire and celebrate active citizenship. Each South African is encouraged to offer their time, money, skills or goods to make a collective difference to the lives of those in their communities. Start following @PlayYourPart

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