3 December 2013, SKA Headquarters, Jodrell Bank Observatory, UK – Professor Phil Diamond, director-general of the SKA Organisation, visited South Africa at the end of November and had an exciting -though very busy- schedule. During his visit he had the opportunity to interact with a large group of young Africans involved in the SKA project; view progress at the SKA site in the Karoo and interact with local business leaders and captains of industry.
In his keynote speech at the 2013 postgraduate conference, entitled “SKA: A physics machine for the 21st century”, he explained that the instrument, to be co-located in Australia and in Africa, would not only be used by astronomers, but also by solar, atmospheric, ionospheric physicists and more. He also pointed out that the tools being developed via the SKA, such as the computing power and algorithms being developed to handle the expected 1.3 Zettabyte of data to be generated monthly when SKA Phase 1 is up and running, are likely to spread beyond astronomy.
Professor Diamond highlighted the types of scientific questions to be pursued via the SKA and gave the students a snapshot of how their specific projects fit into the bigger SKA picture. Talking about what still had to be done over the next 10 – 15 years, Professor Diamond admitted that some of the SKA challenges sometimes kept him awake at night. “However, we cannot be afraid of challenges just because they are hard,” he said while stressing the importance of communication, transparency and the coordination of efforts between the various SKA partner countries.
“I sometimes envy you students who will be working with great facilities such as the SKA, ALMA and the James Webb Space Telescope, as these are set to transform science and astronomy within the next decade,” he told the audience of 215 delegates, including 32 post-doctoral fellows, 48 PhD students and 38 MSc students who are supported through SKA SA’s human capital development programme.
On Wednesday 26 November Professor Diamond visited the SKA SA site in the Karoo, accompanied by SKA SA project director Dr Bernie Fanaroff and associate project director Prof. Justin Jonas. “I was last at the site a year ago and on this visit was very impressed with the progress”, he said afterwards. “The foundations for the precursor telescope to the SKA, MeerKAT, are largely complete, as is much of the infrastructure, which is ready to receive the first of the 64 antennas in the next few months. The main control building is now structurally complete and is being kitted out. Our South African colleagues should be justifiably proud of what they have achieved.”
Before heading back to the UK, Professor Diamond stopped in Johannesburg to speak at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science. His talk on 28 November 2013 focused on the relevance of astronomy in society and the socio-economic benefits of the SKA. He also addressed a delegation of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange on this topic.
Prof Diamond conducted a number of media interviews during his visit to South Africa.