(Published - 1 October 2018)
“Astronomy - and research in general - can lead to unforeseen and important technological advances. But scientists do what they do because they’re curious about the Universe. Investing in this curiosity is an investment in the knowledge and culture of all humanity, and can enrich society in ways we cannot even imagine.”
The annual NRF Awards recognise and celebrate South African research excellence, honouring researchers for their contributions to knowledge creation and dissemination, as well as capacity development and transformation.
“The NRF awards recognise and celebrate the efforts of these outstanding women and men who, through their work, are advancing knowledge, transforming lives and inspiring a nation,” says Dr Molapo Qhobela, CEO of the NRF.
“These are the men and women whose work are helping transform South Africa into a knowledge intensive society where all derive equitable benefit from science and technology. They are crucial in achieving the NRF’s commitment to advancing science for societal benefit.”
Prof Maartens has held the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) SARChI Research Chair in Cosmology since 2011. Before returning to his homeland, he was the founding director in 2002 of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation in Portsmouth, which became one of the top cosmology research groups in the UK and Europe. To date, he has produced over 200 papers in refereed journals on cosmology, general relativity and related topics. During his career, he has mentored 30 postdocs and supervised 17 PhD and 10 MSc graduates to completion.
Maartens currently works on the science of very large galaxy surveys, and some of the biggest surveys will be conducted by the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA is being built in South Africa and Australia, and will be the world’s largest astronomy experiment. Next-generation galaxy surveys by the SKA and other telescopes will deliver huge-volume maps of the evolving matter distribution in the Universe. These maps allow cosmologists like Maartens to extract information about the origins, evolution and contents of the Universe.
The maps also contain traces left by the effects of Dark Energy, the mysterious field that is pushing galaxies apart from each other. Maartens is particularly interested in Dark Energy, and in using galaxy surveys to test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.
In 2013, Prof Maartens was appointed as Chairperson of the international SKA Cosmology Science Working Group. He led an international team that developed a successful proposal for cosmological surveys in the early phase of the SKA – it was previously thought that this could only be done in the later phases.
“My research aims to use the power of the MeerKAT and the SKA to map the distribution of galaxies in the Universe,” Prof Maartens notes. “With these maps, we will be able to find out more about one of the biggest puzzles in modern physics – what is the nature of the Dark Energy that is forcing the Universe to expand faster and faster?”
A key aim of his research is to train postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers in order to help strengthen the science base in South Africa. The team of students and postdocs led by Maartens is actively involved in research related to the SKA and MeerKAT – which is the precursor array of 64 dishes (each 13.5 metres in diameter) that has been built by South Africa and that will be absorbed into the future SKA.
“Having an SKA Chair is a great opportunity to build a team of young researchers and a network of international collaborators – and together to tackle fascinating questions about our Universe,” Prof Maartens explains.
“We want to make sure South Africa is not just exporting the data being collected here, but is also actually able to do science with it. We want to take forward the development of science in South Africa and in Africa.”
To become an NRF A-rated scientist, you have to do top-quality internationally-recognised and field-transforming work. In 2012, Maartens received an A-rating from the NRF. In 2018, the A-rating was renewed, until 2023 (they are awarded on a six-year cycle).
Dr Bernard Fanaroff, who holds an Honorary Doctorate from UWC, also received a Special Award at the 2018 NRF Awards - the highest possible award of its kind - the NRF Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognises the lifelong research achievements of individuals, together with their impact on society. (Last year, another UWC leader, former Vice-Chancellor Prof Brian O’Connell, received a Lifetime Award as well.)
As special adviser and former director of the Square Kilometre Array South Africa(SKA-SA), Dr Fanaroff was recognised for his scientific contribution; his activism as an anti-apartheid activist; and for his contribution as a public servant and as the Director of SKA-SA. In the latter role he successfully led the bid for South Africa to host the SKA, and the design and construction of the Meerkat Telescope.
“The scientific knowledge that will come from the SKA – knowledge about our Universe and our place in the Universe – will be shared amongst all scientists and taken to the public in all countries,” says Prof Maartens. “It will be available to everyone, without charge, and it will enrich humanity, just as music, literature, art and all other forms of knowledge enrich us.”