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Developing World’s Scientific Literacy May Lie in its Stars

• June 10, 2010 • 8:00 AM

Jacob Zuma says the World Cup can score an economic goal for his country, but a collection of international astronomers meeting in his backyard have a starry-eyed yet down-to-earth suggestion for the developing world.

A couple of blocks from one of Cape Town’s glistening oceanside promenades, a few dozen people are cloistered inside a darkened hotel conference room, sitting through an afternoon of PowerPoint presentations on communicating astronomy with the public.

As they enthusiastically type notes into netbooks, it’s hard to remember that South Africa is still considered a developing nation. The view from the hotel pool is more reminiscent of St. Tropez than Soweto.

But 15 years after the end of apartheid, shantytowns still line the motorway between the airport and the five-star residences surrounding one of Cape Town’s trendy beachside enclaves. An estimated half of the country’s 48 million people still live in poverty.

Thus, the recent International Astronomical Union conference on Communicating Astronomy With The Public might seem far too esoteric to have any relevance in stemming poverty or the ills it drives — in South Africa or elsewhere.

But as a portion of the more than 150 conference participants summarized their astronomical outreach activities in their respective countries, the link between astronomy and economic development became clear.

“There are three pillars of development — culture, science and technology,” said one conference organizer, George Miley, a research astronomer at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. “Astronomy has links to all three. To observe the faintest objects at the most distant parts of the universe, you need cutting-edge technology. By becoming involved in astronomy, a country also becomes involved in cutting-edge technology.”

Almost all civilizations have astronomy at their roots, says Miley. He believes researchers have an obligation to use part of their research money for the benefit of society.

“We want to use this unique astronomical gateway at all levels — from primary and secondary school education to university education and research. You hook kids with astronomy and then use it to improve their language and math skills. Astronomy also stimulates a sense of global citizenship.”

Miley, also an IAU vice president in charge of development and education, led the preparation of the organization’s strategic global development plan for the current decade. The IAU’s executive committee selected the South African Astronomical Observatory, headquartered in Cape Town, as the seat of this new Office of Astronomy Development initiative. This new office is expected to require at least 1 million euro ($1.25 million) a year, much of which must be gained by fundraising.

Astronomically, South Africa, at least, is already well ahead of other developing nations.

The country boasts the largest single optical-infrared telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, although it has been sidelined by technical issues for more than a year. The $20 million Southern African Large Telescope, operated by a partnership of 15 institutes in seven countries, should be fully operational and doing routine science well before year’s end.

(In addition to SALT, South Africa is in contention with Australia to land the $2 billion international Square Kilometer Array project. When in operation by 2017, SKA is to be the largest radio telescope array ever constructed. As part of the competition to secure the project, South Africa is implementing its own Square Kilometer Array prototype, the 1 billion rand ($128 million) MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope). A decision on the project isn’t to be made until 2012.

Five years after SALT’s construction, people are still flocking to take a look. The observatory had this in mind when it set up a SALT collateral benefits program to maximize economic benefits in the rural areas around the telescope, particularly in the nearby town of Sutherland.

“We get about a thousand visitors per month,” said Kevin Govender, a South African Astronomical Observatory education and outreach communicator and one of the conference’s organizers. “We try to encourage small-business development here. Even though we’ve created jobs, the unemployment rate has remained high in Sutherland because the population has increased.”

Prior to SALT, Sutherland was a small sheep farming town, with something on the order of only five businesses. Today, there are more than 35.

But in many ways, South Africa is a dual society, says retired South African Astronomical Observatory astrophysicist Case Rijsdijk, now engaged in outreach as part of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa.

Because astronomy uses all of the sciences — mathematics, physics, biology, geology, chemistry — Rijsdijk says that if you can get educators interested in astronomy, the knock-on effect is huge.

“It’s a First World society in a Third World environment,” said Rijsdijk. “That’s part of [South Africa's] historical legacy, which we are now addressing.”

One of his outreach colleagues gave a public talk about the phases of the moon, and a rural elder farmer stood up and declared him wrong – the Earth was flat. Although that’s an isolated case, Rijsdijk says it’s not unique.

Misconceptions about astronomy are global, as Riwaj Pokhrel, an astrophysics graduate student at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, can attest.

Pokhrel, a co-founder of the Nepal Astronomical Society, says that its goal was to carry out public star parties to root out pervasive superstitious beliefs. For example, around the time of a solar eclipse, Pokhrel says many of his 23 million countrymen won’t eat, drink or even come out of their houses because they see a solar eclipse as a curse from God.

But that could change. In the least-developed far west of Nepal, Pokhrel says that in a single night, a thousand people showed up just for the chance to look through a telescope.

Nepal’s economy is already largely based on tourism, and Pokhrel believes it can become an excellent destination for astro-tourism. With nearly 70 percent of the country’s geography 2,500 meters (8200 feet) above sea level, it’s just that much easier to peer through the veil of Earth’s atmosphere.

Still, most developing countries see astronomy as a vehicle for science education.

“We need more scientists, technologists and engineers,” said Rijsdijk. “If some become astronomers, that’s great. But the objective is to stimulate them to do science. India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia have the same problems that we do. They’ve got a very large First World, highly technological core with fringes of really poor rural development.”

In terms of literacy and astronomical research, he says, sub-Saharan Africa lags behind the rest of the world, with South Africa the big exception.

“In optical astronomy, South Africa was effectively Europe at the tip of Africa, which is what attracted the SALT partnership here in the first place,” said astrophysicist Phil Charles, the South African Astronomical Observatory’s director. “But a huge fraction of South Africa’s population is very poorly educated, so we have to ensure that these facilities are a success.”

There are some African bright spots. Retired Ghanian biochemist Jacob Ashong built West Africa’s first 60-seat planetarium in the country’s capital city of Accra. The Ghana Planetarium, which opened in January 2009, was privately funded with an initial investment of $60,000. The International Planetary Society then donated the planetarium’s projector.

Yet, of Ghana’s 23 million people, Ashong says he can’t name one professional astronomer.

And the schoolteachers who bring their students to the new planetarium are trying to teach the solar system, he says, but they don’t fully understand it themselves. He says most are not trained teachers and stumble on basic concepts like the definition of a light-year.

South Africa and the South African Astronomical Observatory do collaborate with most African countries that have any astronomy or space science research.

“Although South Africa has the problems of a developing nation, it has a capacity far greater than any other in Africa,” said Charles. “So, many other African nations take part in South Africa’s science and research programs, and this helps those countries generate the scientists they so desperately need.”

Geoffrey Okengo, doing his astrophysical doctoral work at both the observatory and the University of Cape Town before planning to return to teach in his native Kenya, says astronomy’s multidisciplinary nature makes it useful for other fields such as computer programming, engineering and computational analysis.

The IAU’s strategic plan for the global development of astronomy in the current decade recognizes that not all countries are starting at the same point, and so it calls for tailoring the mix of programs to the country, says Miley.

This likely will involve using senior astronomical researchers worldwide to help train secondary and primary teachers around the world. Another IAU partnership possibility is “long-term twinning,” in which astronomical institutes in the developed world mentor institutional counterparts in the developing world. The IAU hopes that astronomers from developing countries who are living and working in more developed countries will “pay it forward” by assuming a leadership role in setting up astronomy programs in their own home countries.

In some instances, it’s not so much about developing an astronomical culture as it is about reclaiming a proud scientific heritage.

A millennium ago in Islamic North Africa, for example, the Muslim world did cutting-edge science and math, developing both algebra and spherical trigonometry. Their advances in astronomy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astronomy_in_medieval_Islam) still mark the discipline, whether through names of stars like Aldebaran or terms like azimuth.

Islam still uses astronomy to set prayer times; directions to Mecca and the appearance of the crescent moon, which marks the beginning and end of Ramadan. The pre-Islamic symbols of the crescent moon and star symbolize the religion in many contexts and on 11 flags of predominantly Muslim countries.

“After the 14th and 15th centuries, the Muslim world entered a long sleep, which enabled them to be colonized,” said Jamal Mimouni, an astrophysicist at Algeria’s Constantine University, and the only participant at the conference from the northern half of Africa

“After Algeria gained its independence from France in 1962, there wasn’t one single Algerian astronomer; so we had to start from scratch,” said Mimouni. He received his own doctorate in the 1980s – from the University of Pennsylvania.

Today, out of a population of some 35 million, there are only about a half dozen full-time astronomers in Algeria. But with 17 students now pursuing doctorates in the field, Mimouni believes they will become the professional core future of Algerian astronomy. Meanwhile, he expects to see the construction of a government-funded 50-centimeter optical observatory in northeastern Algeria’s Aures mountain range.

Mimouni says that there has also been a recent scientific reawakening in other parts of the Muslim world, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia.

For example, when not doing research, Avivah Yamani, a young Indonesian astronomer and the conference’s sole Southeast Asian participant, devotes her time to astronomical outreach in Bandung, a two-hour drive from Jakarta.

“Indonesia has more than a hundred graduate students in astronomy,” she said, “but less than 50 will become professional astronomers.”

Indonesia’s 240 million people, in part, depend on oil for their existence. So like Algeria and Nigeria, the government of Indonesia prefers to put its money into the petrochemical industry research than astronomy.

But last December, Yamani recalls a meeting with a government official who expressed interest in bringing astronomy to the public.

Partly as a result, Yamani happily reports that next year the Indonesian government will fund a multi-wavelength observatory which, among other things, will be used to make precise astronomical measurements to regulate the Islamic calendar.

After a week of meetings, however, even the most fervent participants were ready to escape the confines of the hotel for a little night air.

Many had signed up for a much-anticipated weekend side-tour to SALT and the SAAO’s primary observatory. There, surrounded by miles and miles of semi-arid desert, the Sutherland observatory rests on one of the most desolate and, by night, darkest regions on Earth.

So, following a long night of casual observing under the Southern hemisphere’s extraordinary celestial sphere, the next afternoon the group slept most of the way back to Cape Town. There, after some hurried goodbyes, they parted until their next meeting in Beijing at the end of 2011.

They left with an acute sense that astronomy remains badly misunderstood among the public at large, but they also seem to understand that their mission is more than just outreach for the sake of development and technology. For, in the end, countries with the wherewithal to invest in astronomy are also ones with the philosophical introspection to make a great nation.

Bruce Dorminey
Bruce Dorminey is an award-winning U.S.-based science journalist and author of Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets beyond the Solar System. A former Hong Kong bureau chief for Aviation Week and Space Technology and former Paris-based technology correspondent for the Financial Times newspaper, he's covered everything from potato blight to dark energy.

More From Bruce Dorminey

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