Amanda Weltman, research chair of physical cosmology, wants to put South Africa at the centre of the maths universe. Picture: Saturday Star

South Africa has huge challenges in maths and science education, but this isn’t stopping one of its top theoretical physicists from wanting to make it the centre of the mathematical universe.

“I want to put South Africa on the map in terms of cutting-edge theoretical physics and cosmological research,” says Professor Amanda Weltman, the South African research chair for physical cosmology at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

“We can’t keep writing ourselves off. At some point we need to start investing in the human capital that will put us at the forefront of the knowledge economy.”

Weltman, who completed her PhD at Columbia University under renowned string theorist Brian Greene and a post-doctoral fellowship at Cambridge under none other than Stephen Hawking, says part of South Africa’s apparent poor performance in international education ratings is that there are extremes in its society.

Some talent is privileged enough to be able to develop its scientific skills, while other talent remains untapped due to a lack of resources, funding, quality education, and much more.

“We need to invest in education right through from early childhood development to PhD level so we can properly mine South African talent in the scientific field.

“If we do not provide young South Africans with affordable accessible education and with cutting-edge, exciting career options, we will lose the next generation and the future of South Africa.”

Weltman is counting on three things to help South Africa overcome its disadvantage in maths and science education. These are: first, the country’s participation in the multinational Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio astronomy telescope project; second, the beauty of South Africa and Cape Town and the indomitable South African spirit.

“When South Africans commit resources to something, we have so much heart and raw talent that we always rise to the top.

“We see this in sports such as rugby, cricket and swimming, in medical advancements like heart and penis transplants, tuberculosis and malaria cures, and vaccine discovery and, I now hope, in basic sciences through astronomy, physics and mathematics.”

Weltman says the barriers to achieving this are smaller than one might imagine.

“The beauty of theoretical physics is that it is low-cost. It’s pen-and-paper research. All you need to do is invest in people and give them the support to devote their time to original ideas.”

Academia is a middle-class luxury, Weltman says. Some people from disadvantaged backgrounds do make it, but it is hard to transform academic ranks when people are so poorly paid and supported through the years it takes people to get there.

This makes it an easy choice for people to leave the sector.

Until South Africa values education and pays teachers and graduates far more, inequity in academia will be perpetuated.

A sea change is needed in the way South Africa sees itself participating in the global knowledge economy, Weltman says. The appointment of research chairs is the beginning of such a change.

“(These chairs) are the government’s strongest signal yet that South Africa values knowledge and wants to invest in the people who can bring that knowledge and grow new generations.

“Most of the astronomy chairs are foreign, but we have spectacular talent in the country and especially in previously disadvantaged groups that we should work to develop.

“Universities are particularly important in this, and need to work even harder to develop local talent.

“If you’re not the person making the gold watches or cutting the diamonds, then you’re destined to be the poorly paid miner who digs (the minerals) out of the ground.

“To move away from that you have to invest in people who can do the theoretical research from which revolutionary inventions are born. After all, we didn’t discover electricity by trying to make a better candle.”

Saturday Star