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!

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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. 

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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. 

From MeerKAT to beyond the Milky Way

South Africa is a very exciting place to do astronomy for many reasons. The most prominent reason? The MeerKAT telescope. In this post, I’m (finally) going to write about the most talked-about telescope on the African continent and why I’m so excited about it! I’ll tell you about the telescope, my involvement in it and why it’s so groundbreaking. 

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What is MeerKAT?

In technical terms, MeerKAT is a 64-dish radio interferometer telescope and is the precursor to the Square Kilometer Array telescope. MeerKAT receives astronomical signals across its 64 dishes, which provides an extremely high level of sensitivity. These signals come in the form of radio waves – the same kind of radio waves that you use to listen to 5FM, make cellphone calls with and connect to the WiFi over. Since radio waves are commonly used all over the world for everyday tasks, detecting them from space is particularly challenging. This is why the Karoo was chosen as the location for MeerKAT and subsequently SKA. It’s far from most cities and people, in a special ‘radio-quiet’ zone. With very little radio interference in the area and the high sensitivity that comes with 64 radio dishes, MeerKAT is able to detect extremely faint signals from the distant universe right here in South Africa!

My MeerKAT work 

Although I’m not directly involved in MeerKAT through the South African Radio Astronomical Observatory or using radio observations, my Masters research is part of one of the ‘Large Survey Projects’ that are in-progress. The project – called LADUMA (Looking At the Distant Universe with the MeerKAT Array) – will measure faint, neutral hydrogen gas far back in the universe’s history. Although this gas is very difficult to detect, it’s the most abundant element in the universe and fuels the birth of stars. 

Why am I so excited about this?

MeerKAT has – and will continue to – produced amazing science and it’s only a year old! It has already produced two papers published in Nature (most excitingly – the discovery of giant, radio bubbles at the center of the Milky Way) and its sensitivity has exceeded expectations. The technical upgrades and new modes that are still in development and are being added to the telescope will continue to improve its effectiveness and unlock new kinds of science.

Aside from the science – MeerKAT is South African! Unlike Table Mountain and the Kruger National Park and several other things that we’re proud of as South Africans – MeerKAT is something that we’ve built. When I was growing up, telescopes like the SKA, MeerKAT and SALT were a source of inspiration and interest for me as a future scientist. Now, it’s incredible to be part of these big projects. 

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MeerKAT has also created so many opportunities for South Africans to study and train as astronomers, engineers, computer scientists, and develop expertise in many different areas. Although many people work in astronomy and astronomy-related fields, a large portion of people take these skills to other fields that contribute to the country.

Overall, MeerKAT is proof that South Africa can be at the forefront of science and technology. It’s a massive undertaking that we’ve not only succeeded at – but excelled at. When there are so many other problems that we’re facing as a country – it’s a source of hope and a sign of progress. The future of science in South Africa is bright.