ASSAf Recognises SKA Leader with Gold Medal

The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) recognised astronomer and former leader of the biggest global science project in Africa with a gold medal at its prestigious Annual Awards Ceremony held in Pretoria on 11 October 2017. 

ASSAf annually awards the ASSAf Science-for-Society Gold Medal for outstanding achievement in scientific thinking to the benefit of society. This year the award was presented to Dr Bernie Fanaroff who retired as Director of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project in 2015. 

When Dr Fanaroff became Project Director of the South African Square Kilometre Array Telescope Project in 2003, who would have thought that the team he led would succeed in bringing the world’s largest radio telescope to our country’s Great Karoo? It was a task that would have daunted many of the world’s most prestigious astronomers, given that South Africa was the underdog in the 2012 bidding competition. But Dr Fanaroff set about this task with his usual dogged determination and, despite the significant odds, brought one of the largest scientific endeavours in history home to South Africa. The scale of the SKA (one million square metres in antenna collecting area) represents a huge leap forward in engineering research and development.

However, Dr Fanaroff soon realised that the Karoo region in which the SKA is to be located had a shortage of qualified teachers for mathematics and science. To overcome this, and also to supply the project with skilled artisans, he and his colleagues instituted a programme to bring qualified teachers to Carnarvon schools. In addition they have established an artisan training centre.

This is part of their Human Capital Development Programme to ensure that future SKA projects can be designed, operated, maintained and used by African scientists and engineers.

Dr Fanaroff received his PhD in radio-astronomy from Cambridge University in 1974. One of his papers, on the classification of radio galaxies and quasars, has been cited 1 849 times (so far!) and is known as the Fanaroff-Riley classification. Apart from being awarded Honorary Doctorates from six South African Universities, Dr Fanaroff was named Ambassador of the Year by the Cape Chamber of Business in 2012, and in 2014 was awarded the Order of Mapungubwe.

Recently, Dr Fanaroff was one of 54 leading scientists featured in the ASSAf commemorative publication, Legends of South African Science.