George Claassen

Salt will dissolve superstition

2005-11-04 09:46
<b>The South African Large Telescope. (Die Burger)</b>

The South African Large Telescope. (Die Burger)

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There has never been a more pressing need for the public to understand science, for scientists to communicate better, for the public to make choices about what science has to offer in their daily life, and for them to participate in the scientific process.

These words by the vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and former head of the South African Medical Research Council, Prof Malegapuru Makgoba, came to mind this week with preparations being finalised for next week's official opening of the Southern African Large Telescope (Salt) near Sutherland in the Northern Cape's Moordenaars Karoo.

Salt, a joint venture funded by research institutions in South Africa, Poland, Germany, New Zealand, the USA, and the UK, is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, and equal to the largest in the world.

Its light gathering surface (or primary mirror) consists of 91 hexagonal mirrors in an array 11m across, and works through an intricate optical alignment system as a single giant precision mirror.

Salt's first pictures with its advanced digital camera, Salticam, were released on September 1 this year. It is so powerful that it can record distant stars, galaxies and quasars a billion times too faint to see with the naked human eye.

It will look back in time to stars born virtually at the edge of the Big Bang - nearly a billion years after the Big Bang took place 13.7 billion years ago.

Frontier science at its best

Salt is the best example of frontier science and modern technology in action in Africa, potentially eroding the wall of ignorance and preferred belief in superstition and pseudoscience that still features so strongly among people.

I use the word "potentially" because it is one of the ironies of our existence that while people living at the beginning of the 21st century have more scientific information available at their finger-tips than any other generation in human history, they have also chosen more than ever before to remain ignorant and to cling to believes in weird things, pseudoscience and superstition.

When Nasa's Voyager 1 was launched on September 5 1977, it "began to change our understanding of our solar system. Now, three decades later, it is still doing so," Brooks Hanson recently wrote in a special edition of Science to mark the important milestone Voyager 1 reached when it entered the heliosheath of our solar system.

The heliosheath begins where the solar wind, expanding outward at supersonic speeds, meets interstellar material and slows abruptly, forming a shock wave, Hanson explains. This shock expands and contracts with the solar cycle, and Voyager 1 crossed the line at about 95 astronomical units (AU) from the sun in December last year.

Voyager 1, and its sister, Voyager 2, who is also approaching the heliosheath, are moving into uncharted territory, as Len Fisk of the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor puts it in another article in Science.

Like the early discoverers sailing small ships into vast and unknown oceans, the human discovery of the Universe is a quest to know more.

This quest always flies in the face of those who think they have absolute knowledge about our creation and existence.

Science never knows enough, and Salt will, like Voyager 1 and 2, chip away at the gigantic wall of the unknown standing in our way.

  • George Claassen is science editor of Die Burger, South Africa's largest circulation Afrikaans daily newspaper, published in Cape Town.

  • Send your comments to George or discuss this column now in our debating forum.

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