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. 

MeerKAT_Radio_Telescope

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. 

Five Things Postgrad Students are Tired of Hearing

Postgrad science students have a lot on our plates. Between labwork, presentations, keeping up to date with the latest publications, meeting with our supervisors and the dreaded thesis, we are busy people. We are, after all, trying to uncover how the universe works and find new ways to interpret and use nature. Quite often, we get a few questions from our non-academic friends and family that we’re a little tired of hearing. We have either heard them (and answered them) 5000 times and often come from a place of misunderstanding or, worse, not taking our work as seriously as other fields. These questions can be frustrating for your favourite postgrad student, so here are five things not to say to them:

When are you getting a real job? 

This question is particularly frustrating because most postgrad students don’t really feel like students anymore. The work we do as researchers is very different from answering assignments and studying for exams. It’s a whole different phase of our lives that is already, in many ways, like a job. And if we plan on staying in academia, we won’t get a ‘real job’ (usually understood by most people as lecturing – something we may not even be interested in doing) until after we’ve got our PhDs. Nobody goes around asking medical students or law students when they’ll get a ‘real job’, even though they’re in training for as long as scientists. 

The Earth is Flat/Climate Change isn’t Real/etc

Most of the time, these people are trolling. If that’s the case, we’ll just keep moving and ignoring these questions. We don’t always have the time or the energy to lay out the mountains of evidence a quick google search would reveal. But, if we do, it would be a good chance to practice our science communication skills.

You must be so smart! I failed maths (economics/statistics/physics etc.) in high school!

While we all love being complimented, being ‘good at maths’ doesn’t necessarily equal being smart. Yes, I can do integrals and enjoyed trigonometry, but I can’t manage a business or figure out how to cook anything more complicated than pasta. We all have different talents and different ways of being smart. Additionally – not all scientists are good at maths or even use maths in their work. It’s better for everyone if society stopped viewing scientists as special geniuses and instead as ordinary people whose job it is to do science.

Isn’t it a waste of money to build bigger telescopes/particle accelerators/etc?

I understand the frustration at seeing the immense cost of building and running the Large Hadron Collider and the MeerKAT telescope when there is so much inequality in the world. But to do science, which informs us about our place in the universe and helps us understand what its made of – as well as developing technology and creating thousands of jobs – requires expensive equipment to push the boundaries of the unknown further. A quick look at the salaries of top soccer players and how much Jeff Bezos earns per second will put the cost of science into perspective. 

When are you going to graduate? Or How is it going with your studies?

Simple advice on how to ask this question: Simply don’t ask this question. Postgrad is stressful and this question may result in tears. We’re all trying to graduate as soon as we can, and asking this question isn’t going to make the process any quicker. Also, maybe another piece of advice, ask this question if you have the whole day free in your schedule to listen to the whole story. 

I hope this post clarified some of the misconceptions around postgrad science students and what you should not ask us. If you’d like to strike up an interesting conversation with one of us, ask us what we research and why we love it. We’re more than happy to talk about science (most of the time).