You must have seen the slightly blurry image of a black hole event horizon making the rounds on the internet in April. A bright, orange, cosmic doughnut. As an astronomer, this image was absolutely mind-blowing. In this post, I’ll share why this image is so important for science and its other benefits.
We are not actually “seeing” the black hole
I just wanted to clarify this important point because it is what is so mind-blowing about this picture. We are not seeing the actual black hole. We are seeing the boundary where light can’t escape from any more because of the black hole – called the ‘Event Horizon’. The ‘dougnnut hole’ at the centre is where light has been scooped out by the black hole’s extreme gravity. Because the gravity around a black hole is so strong, the light can’t escape that region and is trapped – causing the darkness at the centre. Black holes – as well as their event horizons – have a very small size relative to other astronomical objects, which adds to the challenge in observing them.
It shows us that the impossible isn’t always impossible
If you asked me, two years ago, whether we will ever manage to get an image of a black hole’s event horizon, my answer would have been a strong no. For most astronomers, the idea of ever getting this close to imaging a black hole would have seemed impossible. Since black holes don’t emit light and are so small – observing them was – for a long time – thought to be something we would never be able to do. We are in an era of science where the discoveries are completely blowing away our ideas of what is and isn’t impossible – and this is largely due to the work of many people.
It will help us understand different types of galaxies
My own studies focus on galaxies, so I find this particularly interesting. Some galaxies, like M87, have what is known as an ‘active galactic nucleus’. In other words, the black hole at the centre of the galaxy being ‘fed’ gas, stars, and other material through the disk surrounding it. This results in extremely large jets, being shot out from the central region surrounding the black hole. Since not all galaxies are active, having a measurement of an active black hole and – eventually when the Event Horizon Telescopes releases the image of our own, Milky Way galaxy’s black hole – a non-active black hole will help us understand the processes that create these Active Galactic Nuclei in a lot more detail.
We can use black holes to test gravity
Black holes were once only theoretical objects. They test our theories of gravity to the extreme. Although observations within our own galaxy showed stars orbiting something that could only be a black hole, having a picture of a black hole event horizon, which matches up with simulations and theoretical predictions so well, is a good sign that these extreme objects exist. This image is a strong indicator that Einstein’s theory of general relativity – which is what we use to explain gravity – is correct.
International collaboration is the path forward for science
The idea of the ‘lone genius’ – people like Einstein, Newton and Da Vinci who were thought to have worked on their own on amazing theories, making amazing discoveries – is dying out. The type of questions that we are asking nowadays in science is far beyond the scope of a single, brilliant mind. Taking pictures of black holes, detecting faint gravitational waves, building the world’s largest radio interferometer (a type of telescope that works by linking up multiple receivers), and detecting subatomic particles require many people all working together. Our world is increasingly divided over racial, political, economic and national lines. These big projects show us that when we put our differences aside and work together – we can do impossible things.
In current global economic and political conditions, the role of socially responsible science is stressed for its importance. To my mind, it is every scientist’s obligation to join the global voice in the quest towards sustainable solutions and a better future for the generations to come. Without even realising I was doing it, I have been part of international movements the last four years that has made me hopeful for the future: young people with potential, dream and willingness to fight against all hurdles and challenges.
To start with and as a good academic that follows rules, the first time I use an acronym I should expand and define it, so G200 YF: G200 Youth ForumSAYAS: South African Young Academy of Science; GYA: Global Young Academy; ASLP: Africa Science Leadership Programme.
The first time I was part of an “acronym” was back in 2015 at the G200 Youth Forum 2015 that took place at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. To put myself into perspective, I was fresh out of my PhD, only four years after and I was an early career researcher. Having little to no understanding of the science community, having very little experience in multidisciplinary projects and of course, little confidence in myself, in retrospect, I realise I did not exploit the opportunity in full. I made my presentation, discussed about my paper, and participated in sessions relevant to my research field, met a few interesting people but that’s where it stopped. If I could turn back time, I would have been more active in my interactions and engagements; I would have raised my hand and taken more responsibilities that week; and I would not have been self-conscious to start a discussion with others.
A few years fast forward, in 2017, the SAYAS Call for members came into my hands (by the way it is open now for 2019 until the 31st of May). To be completely honest, my first thought was “how do they define science?” – The typical and continuous debate of the complementarity or competition between “hard” and social sciences. So, being a true academic, I spent time reading on the definition of science: here from the Oxford Dictionary “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”.
Oh phew I am also a scientist!!!! I applied…and I got in. My first year started and I had made the most common mistake in these cases: I thought that being a member of an Academy is the destination and the end of the journey. Wrong! It is the beginning of the journey. In the last few years in SAYAS, I met inspiring individuals and I had discussions that challenged my traditional way of thinking. “Exploiting” in a way my passion to provide a channel for the youth’s voice to the society, I accepted to continue the effort of my fellow SAYAS member, Prof Aliza Le Roux, and took over the editor’s position of the SAYAS Blog.
A few months later, I received an email about the Global Young Academy (GYA). At this point, I should mention that without the support of my own institution I would not even KNOW of all these opportunities, let alone apply or being successful at them. Of course, reading about the GYA I realised that we are talking about a completely different game now. With a “when in doubt, apply” mindset, I applied and voila!, I got accepted. This time, I was more prepared and knew that this is the beginning of a new journey.
However, here also, I fell in the next most usual “trap”. I wanted to participate in everything; I wanted to hear about everything and have my say in everything; the working groups were many and all had (and have) so many interesting activities. Receiving all those emails overwhelmed me and unfortunately missing the AGM in 2018 did not particularly help me. An email to – then- GYA co-chair – Prof Tolullah Oni expressing my feeling of overwhelm and she knew whom I should talk to. And he was right here, at the University of Pretoria. Meeting Prof Bernard Slippers, one of the founding members of GYA, made a difference – a coffee for an hour and I put so many things in perspective. I still felt that I wanted to participate in every single opportunity given but now I had an idea on how to do so. And I promised I would NOT miss the next AGM!!!!
A few months later, Prof Slippers introduced me to the Africa Science Leadership Programme (ASLP) of Future Africa firstly as an observer in a meeting. The excitement and enthusiasm of the fellows that have been in the programme intrigued me. What have they seen that I had not? And that was enough for me to decide to apply. I was selected among the 20 people from all over the African continent that came together in March 2019 to discuss the future of the continent’s science community.
The programme changed me personally and academically. From a promotion of science point of view, we were introduced to leadership concepts and practices, science communication skills training, profiling of ourselves within a team environment, and a number of other tools.
My colleagues have taught me so many things in this week and I am proud to call them my family – my ASLP5.1 family (as we were the 5th cohort of the programme). Changing our mentality from focusing on the problems we face into converting them into questions for pursuing possible solutions is not easy in the work environment nor in our private life, but the ASLP facilitators made sure all participants understand that value and will at least make an effort in the future. Our common vision of an African continent that becomes the place to be will forever stay within my heart.
Not even a month from an emotional “goodbye and see you again” to my ASLP family, I found myself in Halle, Germany for the GYA AGM in 2019. If I thought the GYA electronic communication and the ASLP were life-changing experiences, I had not seen anything yet. 200 people from all over the world joined “forces” to discuss issues of enlightenment, solutions for sustainable future, among others, and what’s more important: the group does not stay in discussions, all for action to take towards change. If that is not inspiring, I do not know what is.
with my GYA fellows
To conclude, from this journey that hopefully, it has just begun, thus far, I have learned that scientists cannot complain that society and policymakers do not hear our voice. They will not hear our voice if we sit in our office and talk to each other. To maximise the scientific community’s impact, we need to organize ourselves and at the same time, we need to open the door to society to engage with us. Also, working alone and in silos does not work anymore – when did it ever work? The planet faces challenges that old-fashioned approaches have failed to tackle. Global and National Academies, whether young or senior, as well as programmes such as the ASLP provide the platform for collaboration, engagement and exchange of experiences and ideas. They also provide experiences that can widen one’s horizon and create open-minded and critical thinking scientists.
The constant hunt for research projects, writing proposals for research grants, the competitive nature of some colleagues, as well as the inherent nature of scientists are all reasons that the journey in academia can be a lonely one. But it does not have to – the sense of belonging when being a member in one or the other organised community can improve a scientist’s confidence. The interactions with people from different backgrounds and cultures that, however, have the same challenges, same aspirations, and the same need to change the world is comforting and inspiring at the same time.
So, if you are a young emerging researcher or a PhD candidate that wonders if this is for you, you will never know until you experience it. Apply, get accepted, and go for it. For those that say there is nothing like this in their country: well, there is your challenge – we will all support you and assist in starting a young academy for example or an association (part of my journey was also to initiate the creation of the South African Association for Energy Economics (SAAEE) which would not have happened if I did not value the idea of community).
Finally, if you have applied and you have not made it, why don’t you apply again? Every year’s cohorts are different – and if you need advice or just to discuss your application, you know where to find me. If this is something you really want, don’t give up – timing is crucial. Thinking back, if I went to the 2018 AGM, before the ASLP, I might not have gone with the most appropriate mindset to receive an offer to the experience overall (see my experience with the G200 Youth Summit).
Now, I know, for sure, I will never be the same person (academic, colleague, friend, sister, wife, mother) after meeting and interacting with tens of different people within the last couple of years. I know the impact on my life is immense; now I am looking forward to the specific impact I can make to the lives of others.