Brainy bunch heads for the Cape Flats

From July 4 to July 7, Cape Town may be smarter than usual. A number of leading lights in the world of physics are getting ready to descend on the University of the Western Cape for the 51st birthday of the South African Institute of Physics, which is marking the event with three days of high-level science meetings, three winter schools for varsity students and an open day for physicists of all shapes and sizes, including teachers and high school learners.

Dr Nicholas Walton is flying in from the University of Cambridge in the UK to talk about how to use the internet to create online Virtual

Observatories, which he describes as "computer access to the universe."

Walton is project scientist for the technical team preparing the "backbone software" for the upcoming European virtual observatory, which wants to link

astronomers in Africa, Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australia in a global collaboration. The idea is to make sure that the knowledge carefully garnered via places like Sutherland in the Northern Cape, home to the Southern African Large Telescope, is held in publicly accessible archives for future generations. But these scientists are more than hi-tech librarians: the idea of a virtual observatory is to make it feel as if all

the information and tools an astronomer needs are on his desktop, even though they are actually located on systems spread out over the rest of the world. This truly is astronomy without borders.

Meanwhile, from the other side of the Atlantic comes Professor Roscoe Giles of Boston University in the USA. Two years ago, Giles was selected as one of the 50 most important African-Americans in research science. He has won several awards for his efforts to open up the booming field of computational physics to women and what the

Americans call "minorities" and South Africans

call "the majority." Giles is also executive director of the Institute for African American eCulture, which fights "hi-tech inequality" as strenuously as earlier generations campaigned in the civil rights movement. One of his colleagues once described Giles as a man of "tireless energy" who is "truly and sincerely committed to improving the position of underrepresented people in science and engineering." She added: "It makes working with him not only rewarding, but a lot of fun."

And from the furthest reaches of North America comes pioneering Professor Rubin Landau of Oregon State University in the western USA. The author of

three physics textbooks, Landau is a proponent of the idea of students using computers to solve problems, not cause them.

"They all think doing science and math on the computer is fun," Landau said at the time. "I've been teaching at Oregon State for 29 years, and this has been my only experience teaching

undergraduates where physics is like a game to them. It's exciting and fun, but they learn a lot, too."

There are homegrown heroes appearing at the conference as well, including Dr Zeblon Vilakazi, the incoming head of South Africa's respected nuclear physics research unit, the iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Based Sciences based outside Cape Town. Derek Fish from the physics department at the University of Zululand will be attending with his colleague Alfred Tsipa, both of whom communicate their passion for science through their outreach work at the UniZul science centre in Richards Bay and their popular performances at the country's annual national science festival, the SciFest in Grahamstown. Professor Patricia Whitelock of the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town and Professor Nithaya Chetty of the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban will also be among the professorial

participants. - www.SciDev.Net

  • Official online registration will close on July 26 on but daily registration is available from July 4 to

    July 7 for the seven simultaneous science sessions in the University of the Western Cape GH complex, with the exception of the open day on Thursday July 6, which takes place in the UWC Great Hall. For more information on SAIP conference activities, please phone Naomi Haasbroek on 021-843-1259 or email: [email protected]

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