Making cosmology more attractive

Mathematical modelling is being applied to the study of the universe by Professor Sunil Maharaj at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in his Research Chair for Gravitating Systems.

He explains that gravity is a fundamental force in cosmology and astronomy that can be put into mathematical language, thereby developing new knowledge of cosmology and the system of galaxies. His research is trying to uncover galaxy structures, where they come from and how they have evolved.

This work is important for the development of local skills and for improving our understanding of the observations that are currently being recorded at the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in Sutherland as well as the findings that are expected to come from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The latter, according to Maharaj, will increase the data on the Universe by a hundredfold, which will require a large pool of skilled scientists to analyse the data.

His Chair is therefore instrumental in building up this skills base and has already made an enormous contribution to his ability to supervise post-graduates working in the field of astrophysics and cosmology.

He currently has 10 Master’s and doctoral students as well as three post-doctoral fellows registered, which he believes would not have been possible without the support of the Chair.

He has also been able to establish the Astrophysics and Cosmology Unit at the university, which has broadened the study into related fields and has had the added benefit of increasing the number of post-graduates and post-doctoral fellows involved in this field.

Another upside to the Chair is that the number of research papers being published has increased fivefold, while international collaboration is adding to the prominence of his work.

Maharaj says this increased profile and new projects such as the SKA have elevated astronomy and astrophysics to the mainstream of South African academia, which will have important implications for the country’s ambitions to stake a claim in the global space community.