Esteemed astrophysics guru and University of the Western Cape (UWC) academic Professor Roy Maartens, has received a much coveted A-rating, for a second time, at this year’s 2018 National Research Foundation (NRF) Awards.
His name has become synonymous with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project and building the world’s largest radio telescope.
The awards celebrate South African research excellence, honouring only the top researchers in the country for their contributions to knowledge creation and dissemination.
Professor Maartens works on the science of very large galaxy surveys, and some of the biggest surveys will be conducted by the 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.
“The SKA will provide the biggest ever maps of the universe, reaching deep into space and far back in time,” Professor Maartens says.
“The resulting maps will allow cosmologists like me to extract information to help us understand how stars and galaxies form and change, how primordial gases interacted, how matter is distributed in space. The maps also contain traces left by the effects of dark energy, the mysterious field that is pushing galaxies apart from each other.”
Professor Maartens is particularly interested in dark energy, and in using galaxy surveys to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
A key aim of his research is to train postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers, to help strengthen the science base in South Africa. The team of students and postdocs led by Professor Maartens is actively involved in research related to the SKA and MeerKAT – 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.
Professor Maartens was born in Johannesburg and later moved to Cape Town, where he did his BSc and Honours, before departing for Oxford University to do a PhD. He came back to South Africa in the early 1980s and lectured in applied maths at Wits University until 1994, when he moved to Portsmouth University in the UK, where he became the founding director of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation. He returned to South Africa to take up the South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of the Western Cape in 2011.
The South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) is a flagship project of the Department of Science and Technology and the NRF and is designed to attract and retain excellence in research and innovation at South African universities.
“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,” Professor Maartens says.
“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.
“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 Professor 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.”
To become an NRF A-rated scientist, you have to do top-quality internationally-recognised and field-transforming work. In 2012, Professor Maartens received his first A-rating from the NRF (awarded on a six-year-cycle, his A-rating is now renewed until 2023), and in 2013, he was appointed as chairman of the international SKA Cosmology Science Working Group.
“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.”