South Africa is one of the 13 founding members of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, which has 60 member countries this year. In addition, this year marks the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development.
These celebrations come at a critical juncture, as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has stated that basic sciences are being neglected around the world. This has resulted in a serious vulnerability in fields such as physics, mathematics, and statistics. These are critical to 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) and Society 5.0 innovation, development, and the workplace. Basic science education has become a priority, and it is now part of Nelson Mandela University’s national and continental strategy.
Physics, biological sciences, chemistry, math, statistics, computer science, and geological sciences are examples of basic sciences (also known as fundamental sciences). Basic science research is driven by curiosity and is critical to understanding natural phenomena and the processes by which natural resources are transformed. By extension, this research plays a significant role in sustainable development, in effecting radical changes in the way we live now by identifying solutions to real-world problems expressed in the UN Sustainable Goals.
Physics is the foundation for all other basic sciences as well as applied sciences such as space science, information and communication technology, and energy. Strong collaboration between sciences is required for the generation and application of new knowledge.
Over the last 150 years, basic scientists have made fundamental advances such as quantum mechanics, genomics, antibiotics, plate tectonics, nuclear fission and fusion, the x-ray, the theory of evolution, and the internet/world wide web, which is essentially a byproduct of particle physics research at CERN, originally with the goal of addressing academics’ information-sharing needs. Most of you will be reading this document on a high-speed wireless device based on technology developed by radio astronomers interested in processing confused, faint signals from the depths of space.
Looking ahead, we have a fantastic opportunity with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), one of the world’s largest big science projects, which South Africa is hosting alongside other African countries and Australia. The majority of the SKA dishes are located in Africa, and we must ensure that we have a strong and growing pipeline of young basic scientists who are contributing to projects like the SKA and applying themselves to future discoveries.
Similarly, South Africa and Morocco are involved in international research collaborations such as the Large Hadron Collider (the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator) at CERN in Switzerland and other accelerators worldwide. It is all about expanding human knowledge to better understand our universe and pushing the boundaries of technology and understanding for the benefit of society.
iThemba LABS, Africa’s hub of expertise in accelerator-based sciences, fosters international collaborations and brings together scientists from the physical, medical, and biological sciences who are addressing some of the most fundamental scientific questions of our time.
International facilities such as the SKA and CERN serve as entry points for African students who can then transfer their knowledge back to their home institutions. It is an example of the continent working across borders to increase capacity in basic sciences.
A steering committee established an African Strategy on Fundamental and Applied Physics in 2020 to advance and shape the future of physics on the continent. I am a member of the organization’s international advisory committee, and we are expanding the number of physics programmes and learning initiatives across Africa. South Africa is taking the lead because the South African Institute of Physics, which was founded in 1955, is one of the most established on the continent.
Nelson Mandela University will also host the African Conference on Physics and Applications in 2023, bringing together physicists from across the continent to discuss cutting-edge physics and physics for African development. This aligns with the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics’ Africa-focused agenda, and thus some of the activities we are hosting will be supported by the union.
Participants from African countries who are unable to attend in person can collaborate virtually, thanks to digitalisation. We have already had several successful pan-African virtual collaborations, such as during the pandemic when postgraduate physics students from across the continent virtually collaborated to model the Covid-19 virus in various African countries, as well as the impact of lockdowns in their countries. They published two papers as a result of this, and are currently working on a third, which will examine the impact of Covid-19 vaccination in African countries.
Digitalisation has the potential to be a significant enabler in Africa, providing all countries with equal access and opportunities to participate in international science. However, as we all know, connectivity and affordable data remain significant impediments in many African countries.
Resolving this is a priority because the development of sciences across the continent can contribute to economic growth, such as through the transformation of resources into products, services, and processes. “It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it,” Madiba said.
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