A Letter from 2050

Dear Munira


2019 was the year the world finally woke up and did something to prevent the catastrophic destruction of our climate. It’s also the year you decided to fully commit to an academic career by starting your Master’s degree in Astrophysics to embark on a life of science. Because this journey is one that’s inherently about discovery, you didn’t know where the future would take you. It’s also the year you read a book that helped you realise that being a scientist would forever make your life different from everyone else in your community and that that’s what makes it so exciting and perfect.


“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” – Hope Jahren, Lab Girl


You have become such a role model for Muslim girls interested in science around the world. The foundations you put down in 2019 led you to develop your skills as a writer, along with your science, and your latest book launch attracted so much attention. You also hang out with Kim and the other SAYAS bloggers every now and then at scicomm events! It’s amazing being part of the incredible community of South African scientists.   


In the year 2019, you barely survived the crushing disappointment of rejection after being shortlisted for a summer school.  It’s also the year you learnt to pick yourself up, learnt that it’s okay to fail and get rejected and – despite all of that – keep your hopes up and keep applying. This first year of your Masters, after you learnt the difficult lesson that your value as a scientist isn’t determined by external factors and that you will always be good enough if you put in the effort and work hard, finally got that life-changing acceptance letter to attend a summer school abroad in your field. 


The most notable quality of a scientist is not how brilliant their discoveries are or how prestigious their awards are – it’s how kind and supportive they are towards other scientists. In the future, you will meet several high-profile scientists who hurt people and push people away from science. I hope that now, in 2019, you appreciate your supervisors who are both brilliant scientists and immensely kind and supportive people. Under their guidance, you will continue to grow as a successful and confident astronomer.


I’m sure you must be wondering what SKA is like, now in 2050? Well, I’m happy to report that Phase II is built and running smoothly. After the success of MeerKAT, SKA got so much more funding and input from the international community that it exceeds everyone’s expectations. There are even rumours of its latest discovery winning the Jocelyn Bell Prize – which doesn’t exist yet in 2019 but is now far more coveted than the outdated Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, you have to wait until 2050 to find out what that discovery is. It may have something to do with dark energy…  


I know that the future is scary, but you will do so well. Keep working hard, keep asking questions and keep writing, and keep applying! 


PS: We also don’t have to worry about load-shedding anymore, ever since the switchover to renewable energy and nuclear fusion reactors. 

Science and Sustainability

One of the most impactful discoveries in science over the past century is the discovery that the Earth’s climate is changing on a catastrophic scale due to the release of man-made greenhouse gasses. This topic has been on everyone’s mind recently, thanks to the efforts of activist Greta Thunberg and many others. It got me thinking about how science – which helped the world realise there is a major problem – could do a lot better in terms of being environmentally-friendly. I also came across this article, which discussed the issue with plastic waste in certain fields.

Since this is a platform for young scientists, and young people are often open to change and trying out new things, I thought it would be a good place to open up the discussion about what we can do to reduce the environmental impact of our science. I know that most of us, as postgrads and young researchers, don’t necessarily have the power or authority to implement changes on the large scale as needed – and may require participating in some of the more destructive habits like travel to build our careers – but we can start by raising these topics and making suggestions! I’d also like to remind everyone that no-one is perfect when it comes to being carbon-neutral, but it’s important that we all try our best for the sake of the planet!

polar ice cracking (credit: By Christopher Michel – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmichel67/19626661335/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41618273),

Since I’m an astronomer, I will be drawing from this white paper titled ‘Astronomy in a Low Carbon Future’, which was prepared for Canada’s long-term planning in astronomy. Because of this, not all of this advice will be applicable in other fields. I’m looking forward to reading the comments on how some of these strategies could be adapted to other fields and how other fields have their own challenges and possibilities. 

One of the first, most impactful ways for science to reduce its carbon budget is to reduce travel. Between conferences and fieldwork, travel is an important and valuable part of science. However, air travel produces excessive amounts of carbon dioxide. Travel can be reduced by moving to remote meetings, conferences and even – in some cases – fieldwork. I recently took part in a meeting with and presented my work to some important collaborators in North Carolina without having to leave Cape Town, since the conference organisers wholeheartedly embraced remote participation through Zoom and Google Slides. It also made my participation possible, since I do not have much funding for travel and would not have been able to physically attend the conference otherwise. Although I missed out on the informal discussions, I was still able to confidently present my work and discuss some collaborative research that will form part of my Masters.

Another way that astronomy, in particular, is able to reduce travel is through remote observing. One of my fellow Masters’ students here at the South African Astronomical Observatory regularly controls a telescope in Sutherland from Cape Town and collects her astronomical data without having to travel. Remote observing is slowly becoming more common, which is excellent for reducing the amount of travel that observational astronomers have to do. 

1.9m telescope in Sutherland which is remotely operable (Credit: SAAO)

An easy substitution that will reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions is through catering at events. Switching to meals that are vegetarian for the most part will help cut down on overall meat consumption. The other plus-side to this is that it will make everyone who already eats vegetarian food a lot happier since their meals won’t be a sad, salad-based afterthought. 

Since the electricity supply in South Africa is currently a coal-based disaster, this is an area that gives me very little hope when it comes to powering scientific equipment and instrumentation. Unfortunately, massive telescopes like MeerKAT and the upcoming SKA require a lot of power. I can only hope that these telescopes will be powered through the abundant Karoo sunshine, rather than more coal. But, with Eskom’s current crisis and the relatively cheap price of coal, that seems less and less likely. As a student, I don’t have any insight into how the climate effects of this might be mitigated, but it is something that I would like to raise when I get the opportunity to do so.

Lastly, I think it’s important that – as scientists – we take part in political processes to counter climate change. Since none of our major political parties seems to take climate change as seriously as they should, we should make our voices heard by supporting activist groups that have the expertise necessary to put climate change on the government’s agenda. On a smaller scale, we can support organisations on our own campuses that advocate for the fight against climate change. Although individual efforts are important, this is a global problem that requires governmental and institutional interventions to prevent the catastrophic effects that will hit countries like South Africa the hardest.