A starman in every sense

Case Rijsdijk’s life has been moulded by two passions -— physics and astronomy. His enthusiasm for these subjects, and his dedication and commitment to sharing them with children across South Africa and the world, has led to him being made the recipient of this special award.

For Rijsdijk retirement has been hectic. Far from taking long walks on the beaches near his home in Wilderness, Western Cape, the former consultant to the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) maintains that retiring has translated into a mere cessation of formal employment.

“I am still working… but the difference is I don’t get a salary,” the doyen of South African astronomy education says, with a chuckle.

Rijsdijk’s easy manner and outgoing nature combined with a first-class mind have made him one of the leading communicators and educators of his generation.

For him making astronomy and physics interesting to children and fellow educators is all the motivation he needs.

“There is nothing in the world that gives me greater satisfaction than to share something with a young person who responds ‘wow!’” he says.

Over the years Rijsdijk has been the recipient of a lot of “wows”, thanks to his involvement in numerous national and international science projects.

Among them is SciFest Africa -— the national science festival held in Grahamstown each year.
The astronomer extraordinaire is a veteran SciFest performer, hosting the Science Olympics at the festival.

“I have been at SciFest every year since its founding in 1997 and each year I leave satisfied, determined to come again the following year.”

Another initiative that Rijsdijk was involved with was the SAAO’s Friends with the Universe programme.

This is part of the national observatory’s Science Education Initiative (SEI), which Rijsdijk pioneered.

“The SEI set out a number of goals, among which were using astronomy to stimulate young people to follow careers in science, engineering and technology through a school and teacher science education programme; raising the public awareness of astronomy and the SAAO; developing resources for learners and educators; encouraging learners and educators to attend workshops, both at the SAAO and their schools and reintroducing astronomy into the national school curriculum; and using astronomy as a vehicle to stimulate an interest in science,” says Rijsdijk.

He says that because of a relatively poor level of science literacy in South Africa, the underlying philosophy of the programme is to use astronomy to stimulate an interest in science rather than to actually teach astronomy.

Born in the Netherlands in 1945, Rijsdijk was educated at Kabulonga Boys High School in Lusaka, Zambia. He attended the University of Cape Town and graduated from there in 1969 with a BSc in physics. During this time he also studied astronomy at the (then) Royal Observatory at the Cape (now the SAAO). He continued his postgraduate studies there after graduating, before ill health curtailed his formal research.

He taught physics, mathematics and statistics from 1971 in Zimbabwe and then from 1977 in South Africa. During this time he published papers on physics and physics education. He went on to become national chair of the South African Association of Teachers of Physical Science. He returned to the SAAO in 1993.

On his return to the SAAO he started the SEI to promote astronomy as a vehicle for science education among South Africa’s previously disadvantaged people. In 1998 he created and managed the Friends with the Universe project during South Africa’s first Year of Science and Technology. The aim of the project was an extension of the SEI on a national basis and to raise the awareness of astronomy in South Africa prior to the construction of the Southern African Large Telescope.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Friends with the Universe is its mobile facility -— a mini-bus known as the “Starbus”, which is equipped with materials to run workshops.

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