Medal for awe at stars

2016-02-17 11:15
Kevin Govender, director: IAU office of astronomy for development, SAAO.

Kevin Govender, director: IAU office of astronomy for development, SAAO. (Supplied)

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Pietermaritzburg - A leading South African astronomer who hails from the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast is being awarded one of the highest recognitions in his field.

But Kevin Govender, who has witnessed the galaxies beyond our own with some of the strongest telescopes the world, still wants people to ask him the unknowns about aliens, wormholes, time travel and black holes.

“If we knew what we were looking for it wouldn’t be as fun,” said Govender.

Govender’s designation is long; he is the director for the International Astronomical Union (IAU) for Development at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

He believes keeping people interested in astronomy is as simple as challenging people to question and wonder more.

The Stanger-born astronomer next jets off to the Edinburgh International Science Festival to be jointly awarded the Edinburgh Medal, which according to a statement announcing his nomination is “a prestigious award given each year to men and women of science and technology whose professional achievements are judged to have made a significant contribution to the understanding and well-being of humanity”.

Previous winners include Sir David Attenborough and Professor Jane Goodall.

Having started his formative years at a farm school outside Stanger, moving to Tongaat Primary, Victoria Primary and finally Tongaat High School, Govender’s rise has been meteoric.

The son of a primary school teacher and a mechanic, he graduated with honours in Physics from the University of KwaZulu-Natal on a bursary from the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation. His career includes exploring the industrial applications of nuclear technology while working as a fast neutron scientist at the Pelindaba plant in Pretoria West, employed by his university sponsors.

In 2007 he took up a post of manager at the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) Collateral Benefits Division at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland in the Northern Cape, before he moved into the newly created position he has held since 2011.

“Until not long ago we did not know what was beyond our own galaxy. It is humbling to know just how special our planet is. It brings perspective and [leads one] to ask questions of whether it is worth fighting each other when our planet is so fragile when we have no where else to go,” said Govender.

His pioneering spirit is nothing new to his family, who were part of the original indentured labourers brought into South Africa over 150 years ago.

He said much of what he now does falls into three categories — focus on university research; stimulate the education in mathematics and science at school level; and working with communities to dispel myths and create a culture of questioning more.

“For school children for instance, we show them how to measure the circumference of the world using high school maths and show them that when you look at the Earth from space the world has no borders.

“We don’t know what else is out there but to find out we need methodology, models and technology,” said Govender.

He said sci-fi movies added much to the discourse, especially when they use sound science.

“The films make us draw assumptions on what will be the consequences for travelling faster than the speed of light.

“We have also funded projects in the arts to explore the overlap.”

And aliens?

“We have not seen them yet, but when discovered it will be so big it will be impossible to keep it a secret. In Sutherland we have the community dome, which has no telescope to remind us of the open sky and not to lose focus,” said Govender.

Govender has been named one of the Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans, and received the National Science and Technology Forum’s Science Communicator award in 2011.


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