BOOK REVIEW: Searching African Skies
ARTISTS and philosophers shape humanity’s discourse. Its physical circumstances, however, are shaped chiefly by scientists and technologists. Given the material benefits this has bestowed, from penicillin to the iPad, it is bizarre how few people bother to inform themselves about even the most basic scientific principles. Galileo was almost torched at the stake for asserting it was the Sun, not Earth, that was the centre of our little universe, yet as TV quizzes regularly demonstrate, a significant number of otherwise well-educated people somehow remain oblivious to the fact.
Such almost wilful ignorance is the major hurdle for anyone attempting to make science accessible to the layman. Sarah Wild is only too aware of the challenge. She recounts that when she first decided to write a book about SA’s bid to host the multibillion-dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA), she was often brushed off. Sceptics couldn’t see that the things they bemoaned — SA’s shortage of science skills and that schoolchildren don’t take maths and science — were related to the "science stigma" they were perpetuating.
Searching African Skies consequently has the ambitious objective of proving that science is not boring. In Wild’s words, "to show why science is interesting and relevant, why the SKA will change your life, and that science is for everyone, not just PhDs".
Although readers will, alas, finish the book with their lives largely unchanged, for the rest she succeeds in spades. It is fascinating, for example, that the competition between Australia and SA to host SKA has it roots in scientific rivalry that stretches back to the Cold War.
SA had always lagged behind Australia in the field of radio astronomy. Indeed, it was so far behind that it was only the canny decision of SA’s scientists to seek niches of comparative advantage that kept it in the race at all. Dr George Nicholson, grandfather of the discipline in SA, recalls the instructions of the director of the then fledgling Council for Scientific and Industrial Research: "I had to be careful to choose projects that people with greater resources couldn’t complete in a shorter period of time."
Wild is skilled at using the human story to open a door to the marvels of science, without getting enmeshed in the arcane. She understands that one doesn’t have to be able to balance a chemical formula in order to bake a cake. Searching African Skies tracks SA’s astronomic history from ancient Xhosa peasants, through the 1820 establishment of the observatory in Cape Town, through MeerKAT and, with the South African Large Telescope, into this century.
This brings us to the battle for SKA, an international megaproject bigger than Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, which is the biggest and most expensive scientific instrument built to date. While her coverage of the hopes and challenges that surrounded SA’s SKA bid against Australia is even-handed, Wild’s impatience with the Afro-pessimists, who insist against all evidence to the contrary that Africa can’t do "real" science, is palpable.
On the other hand, she also punctures the exaggerated expectations of some of SKA’s starry-eyed enthusiasts.
No telescope is going to solve all of a country’s problems.
International political realities — that is, whingeing Aussies — forced the decision to split the array 70-30 in SA’s favour.
Infuriatingly, this flouted the recommendations of SKA’s independent scientific advisory board, which had gone for SA only, but is nevertheless a triumph.
It is recognition that beyond our problems "is the fact that the country has niches of excellence, with talented people doing world-class science…. South Africans need to realise their country is capable of great things".
Until now, the story of searching African skies was untold.
Wild rectifies that omission, and very well too. My only real gripe is the inexplicable omission of an index.
About the author
After a private-school education in Durban, Sarah Wild attended Rhodes University, where she read for a Bachelor of Science in physics, electronics and English literature. She specialised in radio astronomy and was taught by some of those who would later emerge as key players in SA’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array.
Wild believes science is important for a developing country such as SA because it offers technological solutions to many of the country’s problems in areas such as health, agriculture, energy, communications and environmental management. She is also a strong proponent of what she calls "curiosity science", although it offers no immediate benefit, because it is a way to get people enthusiastic about science. She says children have many opportunities to be exposed to science and its importance, and so she targets her work primarily at adults, who are generally ignored when it comes to science education and popularisation.
Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and SA’s Quest to Hear the Song of the Stars is her first book, and is the first popular science book written and published in SA about South African science. Wild is currently Business Day’s science and technology editor, which she describes as her "dream job". She first joined the paper in 2007 as a sub-editor.