28-03-201428/03/2014, Science & Technology Minister, Derek Hanekom: Inauguration of the First Meerkat Antenna

Programme Director, Dr Mjwara;

Honourable Premier of the Northern Cape, Ms Sylvia Lucas;

Honourable Mayors and Councillors;

Honourable Johnie Swartz, Minister of Infrastructure, Science and

Technology in Botswana;

Honourable Hilaire Razafindehibe, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Madagascar;

Honourable Rajeshwar Jeetah, Minister of Tertiary Education, Science, Research and Technology in Mauritius;

Honourable Louis Augusto Pelembe, Minister of Science and Technology in Mozambique;

Honourable Musheibu Alfa, Deputy Minister of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation in Ghana;

Honourable Silvia Makgone, Deputy Minister of Education in Namibia;

Honourable Nevelyn Willombe, Deputy Minister of Education, Science

Vocational Training and Early Education in Zambia;

Dr Simon Langat, Chief Science Secretary at the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation in Kenya;

Members of the Diplomatic Corps;

Dr Phil Diamond, Director General of the SKA Organization;

Dr Bernie Fanaroff, Director, SKA South Africa Project Office;

Permanent Secretaries and senior officials from our SKA African partner countries;

Members of the media; and

Distinguished guests


We are here today to mark a major milestone in the establishment of the MeerKAT radio telescope, namely the inauguration of its first antenna. We have travelled far to share this moment. Some of you have travelled far in terms of kilometres to be here today. More importantly, we have travelled far in terms of time: what we are witnessing today is the fruit of an idea that was planted many years ago. But most significantly, we have come together over space and time withaclear sense of collective purpose; a purpose that is almost outrageously ambitious and far-sighted. I am really excited to be here, to see what we have achieved and what we will achieve inthe nextdecade.


We decided to put Africa not only ‘on the map’where innovative science is concerned, but in the lead, for the common benefit of the scientific community, and ultimately, of humanity. And we are doing it. This first MeerKAT antenna is the living evidence we were waiting for. We have come here today to share this moment, partly to celebrate our achievements thus far, but more so to re-commit ourselves to the long road ahead. For MeerKAT, it is one antenna down, 63 to go. But as we all know, as powerful as it will be in its own right, the significance of MeerKAT is also in the contribution it will make to helping us learn how best to implement the Square Kilometre Array. The MeerKAT will in due course form part of the first phase of the SKA, which will enable it to do even greater science than it would be able to do on its own.


There are many ways of doing science, but more and more frontier science involves huge international investments of time and money. MeerKAT is in this category and SKA even more so. But prior to the financial investment is an ambitious and daring dream, which will require the mobilisation of minds, and intense teamwork. What holds it all together is a steadfastness of purpose, which ultimately must be a collective one.


The contribution that MeerKAT promises to make to our understanding of the universe is vast. While for many of us lay-people, the finer points are difficult to grasp, I have personally developed a deep appreciation of the importance of these pursuits. Materially, it is a fact that scientific discoveries tend to have unexpected spinoffs. The relatively young science of radio astronomyhas, to give only one example, made a major and directcontributionto the development of wifi technology, which has become an everyday part of our existence. Intellectually, what can be more important than seeking a better understanding of our cosmic origins,understanding how the universe was born, how galaxies and stars were formed, how the Sun and the Earth were born, and howlife originated?


Furthermore, the pursuit itself brings to the fore some of the most noble qualities of humanity. 


One of the things that has most impressed me from my association with ambitious ventures such as MeerKAT and the SKA project, is that large scientific initiatives are at their best when creative thinking,meticulous planning and project management, are combined with the kind of international collaboration which characterises the SKA. The amount of creative energy that has gone into the thinking behind the MeerKAT and SKA is staggering. Equally staggering is how this energy has been disciplined and channelled successfully into practical action.  As Dr Fanaroff informs us, MeerKAT is on schedule and is being built with very careful regard to value for money, while promising efficiencies and performance beyond what was originally planned or imagined. How often do you hear that?


Another dimension of this process is the boldness and risk involved. Like all very innovative and cutting-edge science and technology projects, the MeerKAT itself has posed technical challenges which could only be resolved while the project was in effect already underway. Resolving these challenges and developing innovative ways of doing things is part of the contribution these ventures make. It is a calculated risk, but it is nonetheless audacious, driven by our deep curiosity and desire toknow. Recall Nicolaus Copernicus, the astronomer who half a millennium ago brazenly rejected the idea that the earth was the centre of the universe, in favour of the view that the ‘heavenly spheres’revolved around our sun. In the preface to his masterwork, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Copernicus wrote that the “scorn which I had reason to fear on account of the novelty and unconventionality of my opinion almost induced me to abandon completely the work which I had undertaken.” And yet he did publish his work. He goes on to say:


I began to be annoyed that the movements of the world machine, created for our sake by the best and most systematic Artisan of all, were not understood with greater certainty by the philosophers, who otherwise examined so precisely the most insignificant trifles of this world.


Science is not the staid pursuit some imagine. The answers are never easy and success is never guaranteed. It requires vision, determination and courage, and  there is an abundance of these qualities to be found in the teams working on the MeerKAT and SKA projects.


A third significant aspect of scientific discovery reflected in MeerKAT, is the simultaneous attention paid to increasing our observational capacity on the one hand, while on the other hand augmenting our ability to process this immense surge in the volume of data produced by the observations.This has been confronted it with verve and rigour.  It encompasses both attention to the many ITC aspects of the project, as well as with a strong investment in human capital development. We are already benefiting from the need to be able to deal with what is now called Big Data, which has immense implications for our participationin the global knowledgeeconomy,and from the large number of very bright young people from South Africa, our African partner countries and other countries who are showing that they can be world class scientists,technologistsand engineers.Innovation is essential in everything we do, from agriculture to health,educationto transport, energy to social services, to business,and of course, to astronomy.  Buildingyoung people to be truly innovative and highly skilled, as we are doing with theMeerKAT and SKA projects,is not a luxury –without it, we can never be successful as a country or as a continent.  It is a necessity.


Finally, and perhaps the aspect of this process that amazes me most, is how much thought is going into ensuring that the choices we make now offer the best possible staging ground for future opportunities of which we are presently not even aware. Put differently, how do you design something so that it can best take advantage of future software and hardware technologies–or of research questions, that you haven't even properly formulatedyet? In fact, I think this takes humanity to another level, to a place we are increasingly going to have to be as a species if we are to survive. For lack of a better term, the MeerKAT-SKA team is grappling with the challenge of ‘premeditated adaptability’, and we will all do well to learn from them.


Ladies and gentlemen, we have come together as scientists, technicians, industry, government, and of course ‘ordinary people’. We have also come together today as Africans, most of us, committed to a common goal, for which we are prepared to work together across language barriers and national borders.  


We are part of a long chain of scientific toil and discovery. The launching of the first MeerKAT antenna is as much an achievement as a privilege, given how much we owe to those on whose shoulders we are standing, from those who conceived of the SKA project, back to Copernicus himself.


In closing, I would like to thank you all for joining me today in inaugurating this first antenna of the MeerKAT radio telescope array. I would like to thank the SKA team for your exemplary work thus far. We have no doubt that you will continue on this exciting path. I would like to thank the officials from the Department of Science and Technology for the generally unglamorous,but essential work you do in the background to ensure that the SKA team is able to keep moving, as well as the officials from many other government departments, here and abroad, who have assisted in important ways.


Thank youto industry for your commitment and dedication to making this project a success. My sincere appreciationalso to the media, for your continued interest in MeerKAT and SKA; this helps raise the profile of science in society at large, which is vital. Thank you to our young people from South Africa and our partner countries who will build and operate the MeerKAT and the SKA in Africa and who will, I am sure, win Nobel Prizes through this incredible scientific instrument.


And lastly, I would like to extend a sincere thanks to my colleagues from the Continent, without whom the vision of the SKA would amount to little, and mean even less.


And of course, we canall assure Phil Diamond that we are committed to making the SKA a greatsuccess, and that we Africans are committed to working with him and his team to build the world’slargest science instrument.


Thank you.

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