Astronomy wins at the Academy of Science of South Africa awards

Christina Scott

Cape Town stargazer Brian Warner has won a gold medal for science of benefit to the public at the second annual awards ceremony of the Academy of Science of South Africa on October 29.

"We're often asked if the country needs more astronomers," noted the University of Cape Town professor cheerfully. "The answer is no. But we do need minds trained in research techniques in the physical sciences because those skills are applicable in industry and in other sciences in general."

South Africa is often urged to use science to fight poverty. However, it is a plank of the department of science and technology to promote astronomy to take advantage of its ideal location and lack of light pollution and storms, which mean that the country has one of the best "ringside seats" on the planet for gazing deep into the universe.

"There are many spinoffs from astronomy," said Warner, one of just three distinguished professors in the UCT faculty of science. "Astronomy has driven the technology and the technology has found other important applications in security and health."

The 65-year-old noted, "whenever your baggage is put through the x-ray machine at airports much of that equipment is called astrophysics. That highly-sensitive scanning machine was developed by x-ray experts in astronomy."

Another example, he said, was "the infrared scanners used in hospitals to find tumours, which have a hotter temperature than the rest of the body. That came out of the technological development demanded by astronomy looking at infrared radiation from distant stars and galaxies."

"In training students in astronomy, I feel that I'm not producing more astronomers. I am training the minds of the new South Africa in research techniques." Warner's main research focus is observational astronomy at the famous telescopes at Sutherland, where he specialises in compact stars, like black holes and white dwarfs. But he has also found the time to build a harpsichord and publish poetry.

Warner joked about astronomy being a science with few obvious advantages for a developing country: "We're proud of that. We do not do any harm. Of course, we don't necessarily do any good either," he teased. "On the other hand it is the most expensive science in the world. If you look at the amount of money that's spent on the space business in the USA it is actually the highest cost, which shows how important it is to other people."

Warner is also one of the International Astronomical Union's vice-presidents, which is considered a bit of a coup for a developing economy such as South Africa. Established in 1919, the IAU is the internationally recognised authority for assigning names to stars, planets and other celestial bodies.

Warner's contributions to society are many and various. He chaired the board of the Iziko Museums in Cape Town (the old South African Museum) for many years, which had an extensive outreach programme, and served on the board of the South African library (now the national library of South Africa). He chairs the Friends of the National Library, lectures frequently at schools and serves on committee of the Friends of the Iziko Museum. Not bad going for someone who was briefly the apprentice to a blacksmith (not really a cutting-edge technology) in his youth in the United Kingdom.

The second annual awards of the Academy of Science of South Africa seem to have come full circle. Warner was one of the nine founding fathers of the post-apartheid academy in 1996, who then excluded themselves from being members so that they couldn't be accused of nepotism. Now he will receive a science-for-society gold medal - with one ounce of real gold - at the function at the University of Cape Town faculty of health sciences in Observatory.

Six weeks after winning the award, Warner will retire. "But it won't make the slightest difference, I become a professor emeritus and move down the corridor to another office to make way for a successor. My life is in research and in astronomy and I will hardly notice the difference," says Warner, who has lived in South Africa for 32 years.

And later this year Warner, who has written extensively on the history of science in South Africa, will have another book launched by the UCT Press. The book, entitled, Cape Landscapes, uses the beautiful landscape drawings done by John Herschel in the 1930s.