The boss of MeerKAT manor

Anthropomorphism and science are usually, at best, uneasy bedfellows—but, as the acronym for the Karoo Array Telescope is KAT, it is not surprising the astronomers involved have nicknamed the prototype antenna dish Kitty.

The project, a fully-fledged radio telescope in its own right, is also an example of South Africa’s ability to build the â,¬1,5-billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a network of thousands of dishes spread across the continent to create the world’s biggest radio telescope. In September, South Africa and Australia were short-listed for the SKA.

Finance Minister Trevor Manuel’s recent mini-budget, which brought the promise of increased funding for KAT, has brought another animal into play. “I call it Meerkat,” says SKA project manager Bernie Fanaroff.
“We hope to be able to build 80 or 90 dishes now [rather than the 20 originally proposed]”.

Fanaroff’s involvement with the SKA and KAT is a return to a field in which he won international acclaim in the 1970s. Most South Africans, however, recall him as a leading light in the union movement during the apartheid years. His has been a circular path that encompasses involvement in some of the most pressing social issues facing the country.

Fanaroff studied theoretical physics at the University of the Witwatersrand from 1965, then obtained a doctorate in astrophysics at Cambridge. In 1974, he and British astronomer Julia Riley developed a way of categorising radio galaxies and radio-loud quasars in terms of the separation between the brightest parts of their radio-emitting lobes. This classification system is still used by radio astronomers throughout the world.

On his return from Britain, Fanaroff started lecturing at Wits. Strikes in Durban led to the formation of the first unions for black workers, and Fanaroff and Wits colleagues such as Alec Erwin and Johnny Copelyn joined the Industrial Aid Society to help the Durban unions mobilise on the Reef.

During nearly two decades of involvement with unions, Fanaroff rose to be general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), where he was known as a tough negotiator. Opponents feared his formidable intellect and incisive bargaining, although they praised his fairness. Ironically, Harry Coetzee, MD of IST, the engineering company that is building the KAT dishes, once faced Fanaroff across the negotiating table.

Numsa bookings administrator Thembi Nabe, who worked with Fanaroff from his days at the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union (Mawu), which preceded Numsa, describes him as a good organiser. “He was fun to work with—but very strict,” she says.

Fanaroff has not completely cut his ties with Numsa. Recently he advised Zimbabwean metal industry workers on how to merge into a bigger union. “We called in Bernie to talk about how to organise small unions. Afterwards he was asked about what he is doing now and the union members got him to talk for a further hour-and-a-half about the stars,” says a Numsa official.

“He’s able to explain things, about unionising and astronomy, in ways that the average person can easily understand,” says the Numsa official.

That ability was quickly recognised by the post-apartheid government, which drew the former union official into a variety of roles in the new dispensation. He started as deputy director general of the reconstruction and development programme, working out of the office of president Nelson Mandela. When the RDP ended, former safety and security minister Sydney Mufamadi asked Fanaroff to move to his department as an adviser and head the National Crime Prevention Strategy, which looked at key issues such as the control of firearms.

Since 2003, however, Fanaroff has turned his attention back to science. When the South African team was first putting together its bid to host the SKA, Fanaroff’s name inevitably came up.

“There were four of us sitting around the table trying to decide who could be project manager,” says SKA project scientist Justin Jonas, “and all four independently came up with the same name: Bernie Fanaroff. He was the ideal person to front the bid.”

His job, now that South Africa is on the shortlist, is to coordinate the many strands that make up the project, including the building of Kitty and the rest of the Meerkat manor. If more dishes are approved for KAT, the team hopes to be able to build at least one antenna in each of four neighbouring countries that will be part of the full SKA.

The regional nature of the project means that astronomers from South Africa’s partners need to be trained. The Department of Science and Technology is offering bursaries for local and foreign students to be involved with KAT and SKA. Already a Mozambican and a Mauritian student are part of the team.

There are set aims for what KAT and the SKA will be used for, such as searching for dark matter and testing Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But local and international scientists believe that—like with all other existing great telescopes—their biggest breakthroughs will be serendipitous: accidental discoveries that no one had expected.

One country’s loss ...

Although South Africa has to wait until at least 2008 to find out whether its bid for the SKA is successful, local hopes were boosted with news of a severe blow to the chances of the only rival bidder, Australia.

Local government officials have approved the widening of a road to allow at least 50 iron-ore-carrying trucks a day to traverse the site in Western Australia hand-picked for its radio silence.

“We were staggered when we found out a mining company had got approval to widen the road by up to 10 metres—or the equivalent of a nine-lane highway running through the zone,’’ one of the SKA scientists, who did not want to be named, told The Australian. “Fifty trucks a day basically ruins the site for SKA.”

In contrast, South African Minister of Science and Technology Mosibudi Mangena has vowed to protect the Karoo site. “We have faced the challenge of radio frequency interference with the support and commitment of the Northern Cape government through an Astronomy Bill, a proposed legislation that deems these areas [KAT and the SKA] as astronomy reserves,” he announced earlier this month at a function to celebrate the start of building the prototype KAT dish at the Hartebeeshoek radio astronomy facility in the Magaliesberg.

Mangena presented the Bill to the full Cabinet this week.

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