Episode 50: Titans of Astronomy
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with Dr Bernie Fanaroff
In celebration of our 50th episode, we are joined by a titan of astronomy, Dr Bernie Fanaroff, who speaks with us about his illustrious career and his vision for the future of astronomy in Africa.
Bernie is a world-renowned radio astronomer! While working on his PhD in the early 70s, he and British astronomer Julia Riley, made a breakthrough discovery about radio galaxies. They found that the radio luminosity of these galaxies is related to the shape of their huge radio jets.
This method of classifying radio galaxies is now called the “Fanaroff-Riley” classification system.
Over the past few decades Bernie has been dedicated to making South Africa and South African Astronomy stand out in the global community. He was the Project Director for South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array (SKA) bid. He lead the team that paved the way for the construction of the MeerKAT Telescope, resulting in Africa being chosen to host part of the biggest global scientific project; the SKA.
Bernie’s achievements have been recognised with an array of distinctions including 7 honorary degrees, his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Karl G Jansky Lectureship, a National Research Foundation Lifetime Achievement award, as well as South Africa’s highest honour; the Order of Mapungubwe in silver for his contributions.
This week’s guest
Bernie’s original 1974 paper: https://academic.oup.com/mnras/article-pdf/167/1/31P/8079923/mnras167-031P.pdf
The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO): https://www.sarao.ac.za/
By Justine Crook-Mansour
[00:00:00] Dan: Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Daniel Cunnama
[00:00:08] Jacinta: and Dr. Jacinta Delhaize. Each episode, we’ll be giving you a behind-the-scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.
[00:00:17] Dan: Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.
[00:00:24] Jacinta: Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the skies.
[00:00:32] Dan: Welcome to episode 50.
[00:00:35] Jacinta: It’s our big one, our 50th anniversary. Congratulations, Dan.
[00:00:40] Dan: Well, not 50th anniversary. We haven’t been going for 50 years.
[00:00:43] Jacinta: You have to say congratulations to me too.
[00:00:44] Dan: It’s our 50th episode. I’m just correcting you first, as is my want. Congratulations Jacinta.
[00:00:54] Jacinta: Thank you Daniel. That wasn’t fished for at all.
[00:01:00] Dan: We have a very exciting episode waiting for you today, where we speak with Dr. Bernie Fanaroff. And often you say with these sorts of individuals “needs no introduction”, but in Bernie’s case, I’d like to do a long and detailed introduction on what an amazing person Bernie is and what he’s done for astronomy.
[00:01:20] Jacinta: But first, just for any new listeners, just to give you a little bit of background about what we’re talking about, we’ll mention the MeerKAT telescope and we’ll mention the SKA. So this episode is all about radio astronomy and the growth of radio astronomy in the world, and particularly in South Africa.
South Africa is home to one of the world’s best radio telescopes, called MeerKAT, which I myself use for my work, as do many other people. And we’ve done quite a few episodes on MeerKAT science in the last few seasons. And MeerKAT is one of the Pathfinder telescopes that has been built around the world in preparation for a huge, almighty telescope called the SKA, which will be built partly in South Africa and partly in Western Australia. And so Bernie was one of the people who were the driving force behind the SKA, particularly the South African bid for that.
He tells us a lot of amazing stories. He’s also one of the two originators of a particular classification system for radio galaxies. Then he will tell us all about that. As a result of all of those things, I am a massive fan of Bernie. So I’m very excited about this episode, as you’ll hear in my voice.
[00:02:30] Dan: All right, so you’ve done a lot of my intro already, but I’ll do it again, for Bernie.
[00:02:35] Jacinta: Oh, sorry. Okay, okay, sorry. Let’s just go into the interview and we’ll just see what happens.
[00:02:42] Dan: Let’s hear from bernie.
All right. So today we’re very excited to be joined by Dr. Bernie Fanaroff. Bernie, welcome to The Cosmic Savannah.
[00:02:58] Bernie: Thank you very much.
[00:02:59] Jacinta: Hi, Bernie. Great to have you here.
[00:03:01] Bernie: It’s great to be here.
[00:03:03] Dan: So just to introduce you to our listeners, Bernie has a list of achievements, which will take up the entire podcast. So we’ll just name a few, if you’ll allow us, Bernie?
[00:03:14] Bernie: Sure.
[00:03:14] Jacinta: Okay, so Bernie is a world-renowned radio astronomer who, while working on his PhD in the early seventies, in collaboration with a British astronomer named Julia Riley, made a breakthrough in the classification of radio galaxies, which is actually called the Fanaroff-Riley classification. And this is used to classify radio galaxies based on the radio luminosity and shape of their emission.
[00:03:39] Dan: But in addition to that, Bernie is dedicated to making South Africa and South African astronomy stand out in the global community. He was the project director for the South African Square Kilometre Array bid, the successful SKA bid, and leading the team that landed the biggest global scientific project in Africa. And also led the way in the construction of the Karoo Array Telescope, which then developed into the MeerKAT telescope.
Bernie’s achievements have been recognised with an array of distinctions, including seven honorary degrees, his election as a fellow of the Royal Society, the Karl G. Jansky Lectureship, a National Research Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as South Africa’s highest honour – the Order of Mapungubwe, in silver – for his contributions. And on top of that, you’re a really nice guy, aren’t you Bernie?
[00:04:29] Bernie: That’s kind of you to say so. I do my best.
[00:04:34] Jacinta: Of all of this, Bernie, I’m just dying to ask you about radio galaxies, because that’s my particular field of research. So often in my work, I cite the FR-I and FR-II galaxies, called Fanaroff-Riley I, Fanaroff-Riley II, named after yourself and your PhD supervisor.
So I was wondering Bernie, if you could just tell the listeners briefly in your words, what are radio galaxies and why are they interesting?
[00:04:59] Bernie: Sure.
Let me just correct you though. Julia was a fellow student. My supervisor was Malcolm Longair.
[00:05:06] Jacinta: Okay, thank you for correcting us.
[00:05:08] Bernie: Julia and I both started in 1970 at the Cavendish Laboratory. It’s a very long time ago.
[00:05:15] Jacinta: That’s even more awesome. So what are radio galaxies, in your own words, and why are they so interesting?
[00:05:24] Bernie: Let me give a little bit of history. As your listeners may know, in the 1930s, then in the 1940s, people started to discover radio radiation from the sky, which they quickly identified as coming from the universe.
After the Second World War in the 1940s and the early 1950s, a lot of technology was developed for radar, which was appropriate for the study of this radio radiation from the sky. And I happened to arrive in Cambridge just at the right time.
The principle of how to make very detailed pictures of the radiation from the sky had been developed in several places. But one of the leading thinkers was Martin Ryle, who was the head of department in Cambridge. And he and his team had developed what they called Earth-rotation synthesis, where you use a number of fairly small radio dishes and you link them together. And by doing that, you can make very detailed pictures of the sky.
So when I arrived there, the one-mile telescope had been operating for a couple of years. And during the time I was in Cambridge, the five-kilometre telescope, which was a bigger and better version of the one-mile telescope, was being commissioned. So I was lucky that, for the first time, we were getting really detailed pictures of radio galaxies.
So what is a radio galaxy? What we now know is that almost all galaxies, and I’m sure Jacinta you know more than I do about this, have a supermassive black hole in their centres. And supermassive means millions or billions of times the mass of our Sun. And these black holes are almost all rotating. And they seem to have a disk of gas and dust around them. And that falls into the black hole a bit like water going down a sink.
And in a manner that I don’t understand, and I’m not sure anybody really understands clearly at this point, is black holes then have a tendency to spew out energy in opposite directions, along their poles, so that you get two jets of energy coming out of the area around the black hole. You also get a lot of radiation.
But the majority of the energy in some of the radio galaxies comes out through these jets. And in the jets, amongst other things, there are electrons which are traveling at very close to the speed of light. And the bulk motion of the jets in many of these galaxies also seems to be very close to the speed of light.
So as the electrons in these jets push out into the gas in the galaxy, they sweep up magnetic field. They’ve got some magnetic field with them, tangled up to start with. And what we know is that electrons which are traveling close to the speed of light in a magnetic field emit radio radiation.
So what we saw with the one-mile telescope and the five-kilometre telescope was a picture of radio emission, which looked a bit like a dumbbell. So on either side of the galaxy, there was a big blob of radio emission.
And of course, as we moved from the one-mile telescope to the five-kilometre telescope, we got more detail. They didn’t just look like blobs anymore. So it wasn’t a dumbbell. We could actually see that they look like lobes of radio emission.
And why I say I was in the right place at the right time was that Julia and I were able to start classifying what these lobes of radio emission looked like, because we were really lucky to have the first detailed pictures of that emission. So it was really a case of being in the right place at the right time.
[00:09:48] Jacinta: That’s fantastic. So, was this the first time that telescopes had developed the resolution capable of seeing these radio galaxies as multiple blobs? What did they look like before? And why was it that the one-mile and the five-kilometre telescope could see these different structures?
[00:10:03] Bernie: Well, they had been interferometers used before the one-mile telescope was developed. But they could tell you that there was structure, they could tell you that there was fine detail, but they couldn’t make a nice picture of it.
And Martin Ryle and his team developed this Earth-rotation synthesis method, which allowed you to actually make a good picture. So not only could you say there is detail, but you could actually make a picture of that detail.
And the one-mile telescope was really the first one that gave you really nice pictures where you could see what was happening. Not a lot of detail because the one-mile length of the telescope limited how fine the detail was that you could see.
The five-kilometre telescope gave you two advantages. One was it worked at a high frequency. And the other one was it was a bit longer; five kilometres is obviously longer than one mile. So you got more detail and it was also more sensitive. So the pictures were both more detailed and more sensitive.
[00:11:13] Dan: So the one mile and then the five kilometre, is this an array like we see today for an interferometer of various different telescopes, or we’re talking about one big line?
[00:11:25] Bernie: Well, those telescopes were much simpler, in a sense, than the ones we have now. So the MeerKAT telescope is in a spiral configuration. As you know, it has 64 dishes. And that means that you can take a snapshot of whatever you’re looking at. So in a fairly short period of time, you get a reliable and fairly sensitive picture.
The one-mile telescope and the five-kilometre telescopes were all in a straight line. So what the Cavendish team did was to use a piece of railway line that was no longer in use at a place called Lord’s Bridge, which is just outside Cambridge. And they had a couple of dishes which were fixed, they couldn’t move. And they had a couple of dishes which could move on the railway line, and the railway line just happened to be almost exactly east-west.
And if you are looking down from the sky on two dishes, which are in east-west line, as the Earth goes around, it appears to you, looking down from the sky, that one dish makes a circle around the other. So you get information about the sky from those dishes, which you can combine together, and you get a lot of different orientations of those two dishes with respect to each other.
So in that way, over a period of 12 hours or however long you could see the source, which isn’t always 12 hours, you could put together quite a lot of information about what the source looked like. But you then had to move the movable dishes so that the spacing between the movable dishes and the fixed dishes changed. So you would do one spacing one day and then the next spacing the next day, and then next spacing the day after. So it is a very slow and arduous process.
So with MeerKAT, you don’t have to do the moving of the dishes because you have 64 dishes. And, of course, they’ll soon have 80 dishes, with what’s called the MeerKAT extension. And so you have lots of different orientations between the different dishes and you have lots of different spacings between the dishes. So you get a lot of information all within one observation of say eight hours. Whereas with the one-mile or the five-kilometre telescopes, you had to have one spacing and let the Earth go around. And then another spacing and let the Earth go around and so on, as I was saying earlier.
[00:14:10] Dan: In terms of radio astronomy in general, going from the early seventies, when you had these very simple telescopes and the first interferometers, which would be used for radio astronomy, now the biggest astronomy project is a radio telescope. In 50 years why did astronomy, I mean radio astronomy, become such a big thing in astronomy?
[00:14:33] Bernie: Well, that’s a very interesting question. There are a number of answers to that. Remember that with the radio telescope, you don’t look only at galaxies, you look at supernova remnants. You look at clouds where new stars are forming. You can look at the hydrogen in spiral galaxies. So there’s a whole range of different things you’re looking at.
And radio waves are generally not blocked by dust. So with an optical telescope, you sometimes can’t see the central regions of a galaxy. So, with our own Milky Way, for instance, because of the dust in the Milky Way, you can’t see everything that’s going on in the centre. With a radio telescope, you can see through the dust. So that’s one advantage.
Also, in those days, you could see very far back in the history of the universe, probably further than you could with the optical telescopes that existed at the time. Hubble made a huge difference. Of course, Hubble being so sensitive and with such fine resolution. But the resolution, the detail that you could get with radio telescopes, was superb. So you could learn a lot about the physics of galaxies of different kinds, about exploding stars. You could learn things that you couldn’t do with an optical telescope.
But of course, these things all come together. So, with a radio telescope, you see the very energetic events in the centres of galaxies, those jets I was talking about, quasars. You can see exploding stars. You can see also the hydrogen gas in spiral galaxies. You can measure the velocity with which that hydrogen gas is rotating. So you can learn about the dynamics of spiral galaxies.
With the X-ray telescopes that we now have, you learn about very hot gas. So all of these things come together. And when you put together the information that you get at the different wavelengths, with the different telescopes, you can learn about the physics of what is happening in the universe, which you can’t really do when you look just at one wavelength.
[00:16:51] Jacinta: We’re about to take another big step in that direction, revolutionizing our understanding of the universe with the SKA, which we’ll talk all about in just a moment. But before we leave Cambridge, I have another one or two questions for you.
That must have been incredible, for the first time, kind of like unveiling a part of the universe that we hadn’t seen, you know, being able to see these beautiful radio galaxies in this crisp detail and kind of just realizing almost what they were. How did that feel when you were looking at these images and realizing that there was this treasure trove of information in there?
[00:17:23] Bernie: It was very exciting, but I’ll tell you another story about that. Remember that the Cambridge group was doing the first, really big surveys of radio sources, what we call extragalactic radio sources, the very distant ones.
And there was a controversy raging at the time, and two of the most vociferous proponents of the controversy were Martin Ryle, who believed in the Big Bang model of the universe and Fred Hoyle, who believed in the steady-state theory of the universe. And Fred Hoyle was a director of the Institute of Astronomy and Martin Ryle was the director of the radio astronomy group in the Cavendish. And they were personally very hostile to each other. So we were discouraged from going to seminars at the Institute of Astronomy. So I think in the three and a half years I was there, I only went to one or two seminars at the Institute.
But what happened, of course, was that eventually when the surveys became sufficiently reliable, it was clear that there were more powerful radio galaxies in the past than there are now. And the implication is that the universe has changed over its history. And that, I think, was one of the nails in the coffin of the steady-state theory. Of course, the discovery of the cosmic microwave background was a decisive nail in the coffin.
[00:18:47] Dan: Did you get an apology from Fred Hoyle?
[00:18:50] Bernie: I certainly didn’t. I’m not sure if Martin did.
[00:18:56] Dan: Science is serious business, ladies and gentlemen.
[00:18:58] Jacinta: Yeah, very serious. Oh my goodness. That’s just so incredible. But what happened to the five-kilometre and the one-mile telescope? Were they incorporated into something else or were they dismantled?
[00:19:11] Bernie: I think the five-kilometre telescope dishes have been incorporated into a new telescope. But, to be honest, I’m not really up to date with that.
[00:19:20] Jacinta: All right. Well maybe we should move on to something that you are definitely up to date on. Dan?
[00:19:25] Dan: Yeah. So we’ve been talking about the development of radio astronomy, and we’ve mentioned the SKA before on this podcast, but as we said in the introduction, you were the main proponent for the SKA and particularly South Africa’s bid – the project director for South Africa’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array, the largest radio telescope ever to be built.
How did you get involved in this? I mean, what was it like in the early days? I know I’ve seen photos of yourself and Justin Jonas camping in Carnarvon and you know, to be like right at the beginning of something as big as this, it must be quite a story.
[00:20:05] Bernie: Yeah, it is a story. The story starts a little bit before I got involved. Khotso Mokhele was the president of the National Research Foundation and was approached by optical astronomers with the idea of building the SALT telescope. And Khotso, who’s a microbiologist, was quite sceptical why we would want to spend all that money on a telescope. But, as he puts it, he rapidly became convinced that astronomy is unique in the sense that it is very easy to explain to the public, it’s very exciting, and it’s just a wonderful science to increase public understanding of science. So he became very committed to working with the optical astronomers and they got international buy-in and they eventually built the SALT telescope, the Southern African Large Telescope, the 10-meter optical telescope.
And then, when they’d started building that, they said, well, what do we do next? And one or two of the astronomers said to Khotso, well, there’s this project to build the world’s largest radio telescope to study the history of neutral hydrogen throughout the history of the universe. And they persuaded Khotso that this was a good idea. And the idea was then to bid for the Square Kilometre Array to be built in South Africa.
So Khotso, together with Justin Jonas, who was the professor of radio astronomy at Rhodes University, and George Nicholson, who was the director at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory, went to the head of the Department of Science and Technology, Rob Adam. And Rob says it was a no-brainer. It was an obvious project and he loved it immediately. And he asked them what the project would cost. And Justin said we reckon about 2 million Rand, which was out by a very large factor.
But Rob gave his support and he made one condition. He said, if we’re going to do this project, I want someone to run it who has some experience of management and of science. And all three of them knew me. So they agreed that they would approach me. I’d been in government for six years, from 1994 to 2000 and then I’d left. So they came to me at the end of 2002 and said would I run South Africa’s project to bid for the Square Kilometre Array telescope to be hosted in South Africa. And of course, I was very excited to do that.
And it started off as a 60 hours a month engagement that, as you can imagine, very rapidly became full-time engagement. So I approached an urban planner, Shireen Rawat. I’d been working with her on what was called the Alexandra Renewal Programme, to rebuild one of the townships outside Johannesburg. And I knew that Shireen had an excellent GIS system. So we said to Shireen, can you find us some sites for a radio telescope 3000 kilometres in diameter. And, these are the criteria you have to do. And over one weekend, Shireen came back to us with five or six sites.
And George and Justin and Shireen and I then drove around the Northern Cape, looking at the sites. And then Justin put together some equipment to measure radio frequency interference. And we eventually decided on two or three sites in the Karoo, which is the arid region in the Northern Cape province in the middle of South Africa. And we then used those in our expression of interest.
So, we were working under pressure. We started the project in January 2003, and the international SKA consortium had a deadline of May 2003 for countries to submit expressions of interest. So we worked very hard with a very small, but very dedicated team. And we collected all the information they wanted, which was very extensive. And we sent in our expression of interest in May 2003. And then they said they wanted more information. So we sent in more information and then there was a request for a proposal. And we submitted that in 2005. We still had a very small team. And South Africa and Australia, as you know, were shortlisted then in 2006 to host the Square Kilometre Array.
But in 2004, Justin Jonas came back from one of his overseas trips and said this doesn’t make sense. Why are we just offering a piece of ground where people build a telescope and we won’t be able to use it. Because, at that time, we only had five or six radio astronomers in the country. There was George and a couple of other people at Hartebeesthoek, and Justin and a couple of people at Rhodes. And that was our entire radio astronomy community. So he said if we’re going to have the world’s largest telescope in South Africa and in Africa, we better develop a community of radio astronomers and engineers who can build it and use it.
So we were able to persuade our steering committee that we should start building a precursor. And we developed the idea for the Karoo Array Telescope, which would be 20 dishes in the Karoo, on the sites that Shireen had identified for us. We chose one of them. And we did the costing and so on. And the Department of Science and Technology was very enthusiastic. And we also had the advantage that Rob Adam and I both knew most of the ministers in the 1990s in government. So we were able to persuade them that this was a really good project.
So we had a lot of support from government. And when the Department of Science and Technology went to the National Treasury, and said we want money to build the 20 dishes, they were in fact able to get more money than they asked for, which is a bit of a surprise because the Treasury doesn’t usually do that. So, instead of building the small Karoo Array Telescope, we decided to build a much bigger one. And we originally planned for 80 dishes and we called it the MeerKAT, and in Afrikaans ‘meer’ is ‘more’ so we started with the ‘KAT’, K-A-T, and we added ‘meer’, which is more KAT. So it became the MeerKAT telescope.
[00:27:02] Dan: Yeah. To get the political support. And I think we’ve mentioned this before on the podcast that South Africa is really, really privileged. And I guess you can thank yourself or we can thank you and Rob and Justin for getting the government and Treasury onboard with this. It’s quite an achievement to get that sort of governmental support for such a big science project.
And just in terms of the human capacity development, the South African radio community, radio astronomy community, is now huge. We’ve had a huge growth in the engineers and the whole community that’s built around MeerKAT, which I guess was the original intention. And I think it’s been very successfully achieved. And you and your team have played a pivotal role in that. Maybe you can just talk a little bit to that, what that’s taken and what we can be so proud of as a nation in terms of what we’ve achieved thus far.
[00:27:59] Bernie: Quite interesting stories there. When we started working on the KAT telescope, which as I say, became the MeerKAT, there was an expectation that we would have to rely on people in other countries for the expertise to build the technology and to design the telescope and so on. And it very rapidly became clear that we were building a new kind of telescope and people, in fact, didn’t have that expertise. Because of South Africa’s history of Apartheid, there had been, before 1994, sanctions against South Africa. So, South Africa couldn’t buy weapons, for instance. And as a result, the country had internally industrialized, and had a very big defence industry with a lot of expertise.
So there was a lot of expertise available in electronics and similar radio and radar and so on. So when we started the MeerKAT project, we were able to draw in some very, very bright people who had a lot of expertise. And because South African universities are very good, we were able to get a lot of young people who hadn’t been in the defence industry, but were really outstanding in software and related subjects. So our engineering team was really world-class and was able to quickly, I won’t say take the lead, but certainly take the lead in many aspects of developing these precursors for the Square Kilometre Array.
So one of the reasons why government supported the project in the first place, and it was then supported by the Organisation of African Unity heads of state as well – because remember we involve eight other African countries – was that the project could be used as a way to attract young people into science and into engineering and to develop really top-class skills and expertise in those areas. So government supported it, at least in part for that reason.
And we decided very early on that we had to focus on getting the young people into science and making sure that we could develop them. So we put aside money for grants for undergraduate study in physics and engineering, for postgraduate study, for masters and PhD students, for research fellows. And we also created six research professorships, six research chairs, and those formed the nucleus in some of the universities to build up astronomy and related engineering departments, which were able to take in students and train them up. And you can see now we have some very strong astronomy departments; Jacinta is part of one of those. And we’ve been able to attract very bright people like Jacinta from overseas, because there is good support for astronomy here, and there are many opportunities. So, although not everybody has been able to stay in astronomy, there has been an injection of skills into the economy in general.
One of the things that’s been very useful is the work that we’ve been able to do with young people from the other eight African partner countries. And we started working with them, training people on astronomy and on engineering aspects of astronomy. And it rapidly became clear that one of the most important skills that you get nowadays when you become an astronomer – when I say nowadays, I didn’t get them, my dad didn’t even have to operate a computer, but I’ll tell you that story later.
So, it became clear that big data was going to be a very important area. And we were eventually able to form a partnership between our Department of Science and Technology and the Newton Fund of the British government, which gave rise to the program that was called Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy, and subsequently the project called Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy Big Data. And those have been very important in developing expertise throughout the continent, in data science and in some aspects of technology and in astronomy.
[00:32:46] Dan: Tell us the story, how did you classify radio galaxies? Did you draw them by hand?
[00:32:52] Bernie: No, I didn’t. In those days in Cavendish, there was a computer called Titan and that was programmed in a language called Titan autocode, which wasn’t used for anything, anywhere else. And the programs that you prepared for Titan were done on punched paper tape. So, if you made a mistake, you either had to cut the tape and splice it, or you had to throw it away and start again. And every day, you would take your observations with your punched paper tape and hand it in at the computer department. I used to do that when I went down for coffee in the afternoon, and then you’d get your pictures back the following morning.
So, it wasn’t like today where every time I walk into the Radio Astronomy Observatory office, I see everybody hunched over their computers, processing data. I didn’t learn to process data. Luckily I didn’t have to learn that; it was all done by the computer department on Titan, in Titan autocode, not able to use it anywhere else in the world. So we got our nice pen and ink pictures. Again, they weren’t like the ones you get today, which are in colour. They were just contour maps. And to this day, I still understand contour maps better than I do the coloured pictures.
[00:34:16] Jacinta: Yeah. Wow. That’s amazing. And now, of course, we can do these measurements and calculations hundreds of times a second. So it’s just, oh my gosh, it’s incredible how things have changed. While we’re back on the topic, a cheeky question, how does it feel to have something named after you?
[00:34:32] Bernie: Well, it was a bit surprising actually, because at the beginning of 1974, I came back to South Africa and in 1976, I left academia and left astronomy. And as I said, I only came back into the project at the beginning of 2003. And soon after I joined the project, we went to a meeting in Australia in Geraldton. And it was a meeting of the SKA consortium, all the scientists. And one or two people said to me, “Are you the Fanaroff of Fanaroff-Riley?”, and this was actually news to me. And they said, “We thought you were dead. We heard you’d been – we heard you’d died because nobody’s heard anything of you since, you know, 1974”. So I said, “No, I haven’t died. And it is me”, but it was all a bit of a surprise.
[00:35:29] Jacinta: Oh, so you didn’t know that for decades, people had been calling this classification system the Fanaroff-Riley system? And you didn’t even know?
[00:35:38] Bernie: I wasn’t following literature. I didn’t have access to the journals. So as I say, it came as a bit of a surprise.
[00:35:50] Jacinta: Wow.
[00:35:50] Dan: That’s a very cool story.
[00:35:51] Jacinta: You were famous and you didn’t know. Okay. We can get back on track now with the modern days.
[00:36:01] Dan: Yeah. So, I mean, I think that we wanted to ask about the growth in astronomy, across Africa, which you’ve already spoken about. And I mean it’s wonderful. And it’s something that we on this podcast are very passionate about. But just to end off the discussion on the SKA, so we built MeerKAT and it’s been very, very successful. It’s a wonderful telescope. We’re making huge discoveries. But that project was pivotal in South Africa, actually being awarded the SKA project, in part, you know, shared with Australia who also had a bid in. What was the final decision based on and why did South Africa succeed?
[00:36:44] Bernie: It was a very complicated process. So after the shortlist in 2006, there was a long period of discussion and argument about what the criteria should be for the selection of the final site. And eventually in 2010, the international steering committee issued a request for proposals to Australia and to South Africa. And we had to do lots and lots of measurements of radio interference and of cloud cover and of wind and of the troposphere and the ionosphere and the financial systems and the roads and the schools, and there was a vast range of things. Would we have good medical services and so on.
So again, working with a fairly small team, we put together a very comprehensive proposal and we believed that our site was very good. It was obviously not a hundred percent radio quiet, but it was a very good, pristine site. And our government was able to pass a law through parliament which gave the Minister of Science and Technology the power to prohibit, or to limit, any activities in the Northern Cape province which would interfere with astronomy. And that was unique. I don’t think any country in the world, to this day, has legislation like that. So that was one advantage we had.
So we thought it was a very good site. We also had good infrastructure to the site because these telescopes use a lot of electrical power. They require access to optical fibre. You have to have roads. So we had all of those things. We had to build a power cable for 80 kilometres from the town of Carnarvon to our site. When we were building the observatory and the MeerKAT, we had to put in optical fibre. So we’d done all that. So on the basis of our site being a very good site, we thought that we had a very good chance in this site bid.
We were asked to summarize our proposal in 50 pages, which we did, and we sent in about 70 000 pages of supporting documents. I may be wrong, but I think the Australians had their 50 pages and only 1000 pages of supporting documents. Maybe that we won on the basis of weight. But I don’t think so. There was an international committee appointed to advise the board of the SKA organisation on the site bids. And that was chaired by the chairman of the Harvard Astronomy Department. And they went through the two proposals and their recommendation was that both proposals were good, that you could build the SKA in either Africa or Australia. But on balance, they preferred the African proposal.
And then there was a long period of negotiation on the SKA board. And eventually it was decided that the mid-frequency array, the dishes, would be built in Africa and the low-frequency array would be built in Australia. And there were some details which were changed later because it became clear that the costs of building the telescope, which had been proposed, was higher than the budget and funding. So there were some modifications made, but it’s still pretty much that the mid-frequency telescope will be built in Africa and the low-frequency is being built in Western Australia.
[00:40:42] Jacinta: And well obviously you know that I am Australian, Bernie. I’m actually in Australia at the moment.
[00:40:47] Bernie: Okay.
[00:40:47] Jacinta: But don’t worry about that. How do you actually feel about the SKA being split? Do you think that it loses anything by doing that? Do you think it gains anything?
[00:40:58] Bernie: Very hard to know. At the time that the board of the SKA organisation was discussing it, they appointed a task team to look at the cost. So would it cost more to build in two places than in one place? They came up with a decision that it probably wouldn’t cost more, given that both countries had invested in infrastructure. Whether that was accurate, I’ve always had my doubts. I think the decision was predestined, if you like.
So, what it has done is that it’s fully involved the astronomy communities of both countries. And I don’t think we’ve lost anything by getting everybody involved. And as you know, the Square Kilometre Array now has a large number of countries involved. Each country, each area, will have a regional science centre. So the data will be shared around the world. I don’t think it really loses anything that you don’t have the low-frequency array in the same place as the mid-frequency array.
[00:42:04] Dan: I think Jacinta and my relationship may
not have survived it only went to one country. There was a bit of chatter going
back and forth.
[00:42:20] Jacinta: I remember that. Are we going to be friends? Are we going to never speak to each other again?
[00:42:27] Bernie: What is very funny, if you Google the statements in the press at the time – that was 2012 – you’ll see that the ministers of science in Australia and in South Africa started off by saying it’s absolutely unacceptable to share the telescope between the two countries. And after the decision was made, they both on record were saying absolutely right decision, we fully support it.
[00:42:58] Jacinta: I remember. I was doing my PhD at the time. Yeah. I mean, the SKA has changed my life and set my life course, actually, since when I was in undergrad in second year of undergraduate degree of physics, when I found out about the SKA, because a couple of radio astronomers had come to my Institute in Western Australia, to sort of prepare the bid. And I thought, I was always interested in astronomy, but I couldn’t find enough of it in WA. I thought I’d always have to leave the state, if not the country, to pursue a career. And then all of a sudden, it landed in my lap. Literally in my lap and it was incredible.
It was at UWA, the University of Western Australia. And then the year I started my PhD, ICRAR opened, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. So I had basically millions of dollars of funding from the government for the Institute I was in and no-one to share it with. I had an entire floor of the building to myself, and a students’ area. And so I went all around the world to all of the SKA conferences and I was co-supervised by Steve Rawlings in Oxford. And of course he introduced me to a large contingency of students and postdocs from South Africa.
And so that’s how I became connected to South Africa all the way back then. And then I’ve ended up working as an SKA post-doctoral fellow and now a lecturer at the University of Cape Town. So, you know, the SKA just kind of completely drove my career, which was awesome because it was always what I wanted to do. Did you actually know Steve Rawlings?
[00:44:32] Bernie: I knew him well, and his death was a great loss to us. He was a great supporter of South Africa. He worked a lot with us. He chaired our scientific advisory committees. He was just a really nice guy, not an arrogant at all, no airs and graces, open to everybody, very open with his advice. We really miss Steve.
[00:44:56] Jacinta: Yeah, I agree. He was also an awesome supervisor for the year or two or three that I got to spend with him. And I’ll always remember his stories about South Africa. And he had a lot of colourful stories, which is great. He was a huge fan.
[00:45:13] Dan: Well, I think Bernie, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on. We’ve had a wonderful conversation and loved hearing your stories and your incredible role in radio astronomy and South African astronomy. Would you like to share a final message with our listeners and perhaps your vision for the future?
[00:45:32] Bernie: Yeah, I would. I think that you’re actually in a golden age of astronomy and I really envy you and the other young people who are coming into astronomy. Now you’ve got the SKA. Well, now you’ve got the MeerKAT, but you’ll soon have the SKA, which will be a wonderful telescope. You’ll have the JWST, which will be a revolutionary optical and infrared telescope. You’ve got all the other new telescopes, extremely large telescope, gamma-ray telescopes. And of course you’ve now got gravitational wave telescopes. So you’re in a golden age where you’re going to be having so many opportunities.
The problem that I see, and the challenge is that there will be far more information than there will be people to use it. And when I said earlier that I see people hunched over their computers, I worry a lot that you spend so much time doing data processing that you don’t get time to really think about the science. Now I know that’s not true of everybody, but I think it’s a real challenge that there’s so much data, the volumes are so large, that you’re forced to spend a lot of time on data processing. And because the data comes in so fast, you’re also tempted to go from one project to another one quite quickly, because you have your fingers in so many pies at the same time.
So I think it’s going to be a challenge to make pipelines for these telescopes that give you very reliable processing so that you, as an astronomer, don’t have to spend all your life doing the processing. You can take the data and you can say, “How does this work?”, “What does it tell me about the astrophysics?”, “What does it tell me about the universe?”… I think that’s going to be a big challenge. The other challenge for us in South Africa is to take the young people that we’ve now brought into science and develop them to the point where they are really senior researchers. And I think that’s going to be a process that we’ve got to focus on.
[00:47:52] Jacinta: Yeah, absolutely. And if I may ask you one last question, Bernie, how do you feel about the current state of astronomy and radio astronomy community in South Africa? Because I just think it’s amazing. It’s such a vibrant place. It’s so burgeoning. There’s so many incredible students coming through. Surely you must be very proud of that?
[00:48:10] Bernie: I’m very proud. I’m also very envious because when I see the really exciting papers coming out, I think gee, I’d love to be able to do that. Of course, the biggest problem is I don’t understand at all how to do data processing. So I can’t.
[00:48:26] Jacinta: You can be on my papers Bernie.
[00:48:30] Bernie: That’s very kind of you, but I don’t think I could contribute anything.
[00:48:35] Dan: Well, you certainly contributed a lot to our podcast and we really, really appreciate it. Thank you for joining us today. Thank you for all you’ve done for astronomy, for South Africa, for our careers. It’s really been an honour.
[00:48:48] Bernie: Thank you.
[00:48:49] Jacinta: Thank you so much, Bernie.
[00:48:57] Bernie: Thanks.
[00:48:58] Jacinta: Oh my God, that was so amazing!
[00:49:04] Dan: You held it together pretty well.
[00:49:06] Jacinta: Oh my gosh. I was fangirling out so hard inside. My cheeks actually hurt from how much I was smiling.
[00:49:18] Dan: Oh, he’s a bit of your fan too.
[00:49:20] Jacinta: I was giggling. That was so awesome. How amazing is Bernie Fanaroff? Wow.
[00:49:31] Dan: Yeah, I know. I mean, it’s incredible, the achievements, like in his lifetime and you know, all he’s done. I think it’s immeasurable. And you know, as in the introduction, the Order of Mapungubwe, the highest honour you can bestow on a South African, is quite a thing. I did actually look it up. Only 50 people have ever received it. And on that list are the likes of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Bernie Fanaroff. It’s quite a thing. So, yeah, I think that, you know, just an absolute honour to have him on.
[00:50:06] Jacinta: Wasn’t that amazing, his stories, I mean all of his stories, but like his story about how he was there at Cambridge, when there was the whole battle of the Big Bang theory. Like what! My brain is like exploding!
[00:50:20] Dan: It’s, I mean, and again, like now you look back on it and you know, the Big Bang is proven and it’s kind of obvious which side of the fight you’re on, but back then you wouldn’t know. It really could go either way. And that must’ve been a very weird time.
[00:50:35] Jacinta: Oh wow. Like, whoa. Oh, I’m a bit speechless now. That was so cool. Oh man, that was awesome for our 50th episode.
[00:50:48] Dan: Yeah, absolutely. I think it was a very special 50th and I guess it was about 50 years since his classification, although he didn’t know that. That was hilarious too, oh my gosh.
[00:51:02] Jacinta: Yeah. That was amazing. Yeah. It will be, in two years’ time, it’ll be 50 years, so yeah. That’s awesome. Cool. Look, I don’t think we can top that and we’ve gone on for quite a while. So I think we can probably end this episode here.
[00:51:20] Dan: Yeah. Thanks for joining us for our 50th and thanks, as always, for listening. We hope you’ll join us again on the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah.
[00:51:30] Jacinta: You can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com, where we’ll have the transcript, links, pictures and other stuff related to today’s episode.
[00:51:39] Dan: You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, @cosmicsavannah, that’s savannah spelled S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H. You can now also find us on YouTube, where audio-only episodes are uploaded with closed captions, which can be auto translated into about a hundred different languages, including Afrikaans, isiXhosa and isiZulu.
[00:51:58] Jacinta: Special thanks today to Dr. Bernie Fanaroff for speaking with us.
[00:52:01] Dan: Thanks to our social media manager, Sumari Hattingh and our audio editor, Jacob Fine. Also to Mark Allnut for music production, Michal Lyzcek for photography, Paul Jones for the astrophotography, Susie Caras for graphic design and Justine Crook-Mansour for transcription.
[00:52:16] Jacinta: We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement, the South African Astronomical Observatory, and the University of Cape Town Astronomy Department.
[00:52:28] Dan: You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts. And we’d really appreciate it if you could rate and review us, and recommend us to a friend.
[00:52:37] Jacinta: And we’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.
[00:52:48] Bernie: Yeah, they look like a blob, let me just shut the dog up.