Monday, March 25, 2013

Why Explore Space?

Billions of rands are invested into science and technology and some into the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project being contructed in the Northen Cape province.
Now, "why should we bother investing tax-payers' money into this project that looks to me like a big toy for a bunch of scientists to enjoy?". "Couldn't the money be put to better use in other projects that can benefit the populace such as erecting more RDP houses and feeding the hungry?" and "what is a big eye into the sky to a financially battered South African?"

I will not patronise anyone by denying the validity of these questions. Yes, hard working South Africans are struggling to make ends meet in these tough economical times. And the inertia we see in the salaries are no good news. As a staunch believer in the power of science, and so I will try to defend the advocates of this field and hopefully show the reader how beneficial this project, and many others are to the wellbieng of South Africa in the long term.

Here's a short and supposedly true story that should drive my point home. So, about four centuries ago, there lived a count in a small town somewhere in Germany. Being one of the nice guys, he often gave a part of his income to the poor. This was a time when there epidemics of the plague were rife and mortality rate went on unabated.

He met a man he found very interesting. A man who'd work tirelessly through the day to make time for his nightly project. The count was very interested this project and invited him into his home and afforded him funding and a chance for him to work on the project full time. The man in question would grind pieces of glass, delicately curved and would put them at the ends of a tube.

Naturally, the townsfolk were not happy about this turn of events and so the count insisted that they be patient for he thought something special would result from his investment. What came out of it was the microscope, no doubt the most important invention in medicine and what essentially ended the scurge of the plague.

Mind you, this was not recognised immediatelly. It was a long-term result. And this is something I'd like for us to look at regarding the SKA.

Now, the SKA really is a giant telescope that 'sees' across the whole radio spectrum, and this has many technical advantages over optical telescopes. It is no question that this project will open many doors in terms of what we will learn about the universe. I mean, it will be the largest radio telescope in the world!

In the recent budget speech, the SKA was to be allocated R1,9 bil and amount some find 'outragous' citing a 'waste of money on things that will not benefit mankind'. Papi Lekwene, a brilliant astronomer I've had the pleasure to meet, thinks otherwise. He argues how SA will be an "international hub for space exploration" and cited many benefits that will come from this project including: better weather forecasting, medicines, mining safety, communications, navigation, cancer research and many others!

In the long term, such projects can only improve SA's image and set us up with the biggest economical powers of the world. The sci-tech department provides much needed sustainable jobs and this is inline with government policy.

So, the SKA isn't just some nerds' big toy, its humanities best effort at wanting to know more and greatly improving our lives while we're at it.
Sent from my Nokia phone

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