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. 

The Gemini Problem

There are two words that will upset most astronomers – ‘astrology’ and ‘aliens’. Although searching for extraterrestrial intelligence has embraced the scientific method in recent times,  (Area 51 memes aside) and the consensus amongst historians and astronomers is that human beings built the pyramids, astrology becomes more mainstream by the day. A recent video clip from The Bachelor Australia that has been making the rounds perfectly captures how most astronomers feel about this situation. So it got me thinking about pseudoscience and astrology in particular.

On the one hand, things like astrology are pretty harmless and have helped people with things like self-improvement and introspection. All of us (including myself) have beliefs that we follow that aren’t scientific at all but improve our lives. On the other hand, we have climate change denialism and the anti-vaccination movement that are causing serious harm to us as human beings and the planet as a whole. The trouble is figuring out where to draw the line. 

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Something else that bothers me about astrology is how it is specifically targeted at women. Young women who are interested in stars and space might be directed to a Refinery29 article about ‘black hole astrology’ (I refuse to link to it) instead of an article talking about the amazing scientific achievement that several women were involved in. Because astronomy is a field where women are underrepresented, it can be frustrating when you want to encourage girls to become scientists but all of the content targeted towards them is about astrology instead. 

My natural reaction to these posts is usually ‘No!!! You’re wrong!!! That’s not how this works!!!’ and panic, rather than taking the time to stop and listen to the other person and understand their reasons for following whatever they are following. Maybe they’re concerned about their children’s health. Maybe the politician that they trust told them that there are more pressing matters – like poverty and a weak economy – to worry about besides carbon emissions. Sometimes – like in the recent debates about plastic – people are living with disabilities and other concerns that you haven’t taken into account.

Added to all of this is that science is complicated. Many people have been told that they are not smart enough to understand something difficult or that ‘Western’ scientists aren’t to be trusted. 

While explaining complicated scientific concepts in a simple way is a challenge science communicators embrace, science remains intimidating to many people. And it is very easy to insult and belittle people – especially when you are (like I’m sometimes guilty of) coming from the ‘I’m a scientist who knows everything’ perspective. 

Like any good scientist, I am trying to figure out a methodical way of engaging with people around controversial topics. So far, I’ve come up with a few different questions to ask myself: ‘Does this belief cause harm?’, ‘Is this a stranger on the internet or someone I know?‘,  ‘Am I educated in this topic well enough to properly counter their argument?’, ‘Would I be insulting a traditional/marginalized belief system?’ and ‘Have I listened to their reasoning behind these claims?’. I think framing my responses to situations with these questions in mind will help my science communication be a little less frustrating and a lot kinder around controversial topics. 

How do you deal with controversial topics and pseudoscience that overlaps with your field? If you have any advice or questions that you ask yourself, please let me know!