Community warms to SKA science

2012-10-31 14:40
Professor Justin Jonas has said that the community has welcomed the SKA, despite conservative attitudes. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Professor Justin Jonas has said that the community has welcomed the SKA, despite conservative attitudes. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - Conservative beliefs have not yet had an impact on the community's attitude toward the massive SKA science project, a senior researcher has said.

The Square Kilometre Array is being constructed in stages near the impoverished town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape province, and despite conservative attitudes, the community has welcomed the massive science project.

"In our project here in the Northern Cape that has never been an issue at all. I think we were sensitive to that fact that it could be, but we must never underestimate the South African's ability to adapt and compromise and get along," Professor Justin Jonas, associate director of Science and Engineering, SKA South Africa, told News24.

SA won a shared bid to host the project with Australia and it will allow astronomers to examine the early state of the universe shortly after the Big Bang, estimated to around 13 billion years ago.

Carnarvon is a typical South African rural town and religious life makes up a large part of the lives of the people who live there.


For some with strong religious convictions, a project such as the SKA conflicts with their beliefs, but in Carnarvon the MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) which will be built as a precursor to the SKA has captured the imagination of the community.

"What supersedes people's issues there is the fact that this is a really exciting project; that they really see is as a positive in South Africa. Everybody wants this project to succeed," Jonas said.

In developed countries, there has been an increase in the disbelief and, in some cases, opposition to accepted science orthodoxy such as evolution and climate change.

US Senate candidate Todd Akin caused controversy recently when he claimed that a woman's body could automatically reject sperm after a rape, preventing her from becoming pregnant.

There is also a growing movement to include the concept of intelligent design as opposed to evolution in some US schools.

"There are a number of states that currently are trying to revise their textbooks to include intelligent design or creationism and they're kind of overlapping concepts," history of science professor Ronald Numbers said on Al Jazeera's Inside Story.

In SA, some schools avoid teaching evolution in science classes and News24 reported earlier this year about how a teacher was reprimanded for doing so.


A palaeontologist argued that many teachers in SA still have the conservative attitudes that were inherited from the past.

"I'm an Afrikaner and I come from the Dutch Reformed background and I tried to unravel this whole thing. Evolution was outlawed from the school curriculum under the auspices of the Christelike Nasionale Onderwys.

"Today, we still have lots of people and specifically teachers with baggage - that kind of baggage - throwing a shadow on evolution," Dr Jurie van den Heever, a palaeontologist at Stellenbosch University told News24 recently.

One commentator feels that the rise of suspicion of science resides in wanting to avoid the reality of having to adapt political positions to changing realities.

"I think there's also something else going on in the minds of some of these Christian conservatives and it goes something like this: They would rather believe something absurd than face the consequences of their political positions," said Ryan Grim Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post.

The SKA project has created a sense of excitement in the small town that has overcome conservative ideas, said Jonas.

"I think that that really overcomes all the cultural and conservatism issues. Certainly we've not encountered anything as yet."

- Follow Duncan on Twitter

Read more on:    ska  |  science  |  kimberley

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