About Me

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Nairobi, Nairobi County, Kenya
Geoffrey O Okeng’o is a South African- trained Kenyan physicist with a Ph.D. in Physics (Theoretical Cosmology). He was born on 17th April 1984 in Kisii, Nyanza Province, Western Kenya, and his love for Physics and Maths began at a nascent age when he took interest in solving Maths and Science problems for other kids while in primary school. He passed to join secondary school where he studied Maths and all sciences: Biology, Chemistry and Physics, topping in class. In 2003, he got admitted to pursue a 4-year BSc Physics degree at University of Nairobi-Kenya, graduating in September 2007 with Honors majoring in Theoretical Physics. In 2008, he won a scholarship to join the National Astrophysics and Space Science Honors Program (NASSP) at the University of Capetown (UCT), South Africa. While at UCT, he won a Square Kilometer Array Africa scholarship for MSc at University of Western Cape (UWC) graduating Cum Laude March 2011. He then proceeded to pursue a Ph.D. at UWC, completing in 2015. He loves reading articles, deriving equations, writing codes, taking walks, cycling, jogging and writing science articles, traveling, socializing and gardening.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

“The Teaching of Mathematics Is the Problem, Not Mathematics”


Geoffrey O. Okeng'o

© All Rights Reserved by Okeng'o Geoffrey Onchong'a, 24th March, 2016.

Talking to any average Kenyan person who has had the privilege of completing high school about the significance of the Mathematics they were taught at school, the common denominator in their responses may quite surprise you. For example, “where have I been able to apply the BODMAS that I was thoroughly whipped mercilessly about?”, one of my primary schoolmates asked me recently. If you have never been asked such a question or even asked it yourself at some stage, then you may have been probably very lucky or you dropped the question and changed your mind at some point when you pursued mathematics beyond undergraduate level. To give you some good food-for-thought for the long Easter weekend, let me refresh your thinking.

In a mind-provoking article by Tim Gowes, a Royal Society Professor of Mathematics at the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, at the University of Cambridge titled: “Mathematics isn't the problem, the way it is taught is” [1], Professor Gowes brings to life the disturbing reality of the way mathematics is taught in our schools. Ordinarily, mathematics should be taught as a tool for enhancing the learner's thinking power and not presentation of “a set of pointless rules for manipulating symbols and numbers”. If the later is true- as it often is- then the end result is the numbing of the learner's minds with years of manipulation of symbols and numbers- barely understandable to them and hence useless!

The depth of this problem cannot be expressed any better than in the question another old primary school classmate of mine asked a while ago: “why was I thoroughly whipped when I could not be able to find the value of x? ” Despite having had the privilege to study and apply mathematics beyond postgraduate level, well up to today, putting myself in my friend's shoes, I couldn't help but sympathize with him and the teaching of mathematics in our schools. The question is “is our mathematics education system making critical thinkers able to apply the mathematical skills acquired to solve ensuing mathematical problems and hence enable better decision making? That's a question for all of us to answer. But, I will give an example.

Let us consider as an example on how a different and practical way of teaching of statistics can help in solving the high accident problem common in our municipalities. If data collected by the municipality shows that certain areas are more prone to more accidents than others, the municipal leadership can resolve to install speed cameras in those “hotspots” and mark them to be accident black spots. Interestingly, the result could be that indeed the accident rates reduce and alas! There comes the solution, isn't it? We can go have coffee. Problem solved- Installing speed cameras reduces accident rates. After all data from many other municipalities could indicate the same trend, right?

I want to tell you why this problem is not as straightforward as it seems at face value, and that making such a quick conclusion could be wrong as many variables might come into play. Mathematically speaking, the truth could be that the accident hotspots were spread throughout the municipality randomly and that during the period when the data was collected, the identified areas happened to record more accidents than average- thus giving a wrong impression that were hotspots. The speed camera solution was then quickly sought. In the subsequent period (during which time speed cameras were installed) it happened that the “blackspot” areas recorded lower accident rates! However, the crucial point here is that in such case the installation of cameras can be argued to have been independent of the drop in accident rates!

The correct reasoning can be based on a mathematical statistical technique called “the regression of the mean” which is very important to understand in order to arrive at a correct decision. Decision makers, therefore, need to be aware of this truth and emphasize on practical application of mathematics rather than mastery of repeated manipulation of numbers and simple cramming of formulas- as is the case in our education system. A proper solution to the above problem would be to collect more data over a prolonged period of time and determine the “regression of the mean”. Indeed a nation that cultivates a healthy mathematical literacy is highly likely to make rapid and sustainable progress. Such progress would include a population versed with high standards of literacy levels, not easily swayed by incorrect arguments, and who will not elect mathematically challenged politicians to make bad decisions on their behalf.


  1. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/11/maths-isnt-problem-curriculum-lacking-imagination

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The SKA Africa science extravaganza 2014

Geoffrey O. Okeng'o


As the frenzy Xmas season beckons and the spirit of early celebrations begins to thaw this year's festive season's ice-berg, the beautiful city of Capetown is undoubtedly the place to be. On landing at the magnificent Capetown International airport, one is ushered in by an easy air of freshness and ambience that has been the trademark of the proud South African theme of Ubuntu- simply translated to mean “humanity for others”. Being over a month since my five-year stay in Capetown came to an end, returning to Capetown early this week to present at the Annual Square Kilometer Array (SKA) bursary conference, could have not come at a better time. Firstly, the excitement of “returning home” to meet my “family” of many young and experienced scientists who have shaped my scientific and social niche over the years is unbeatable. Secondly, being summer in Capetown- for those who know- nothing beats the opportunity to dress light and “step” out in the scorching sun and for those that partake, sipping away your favorite cold drink is just but a human right. Truth.

Today marks the fourth day of a 5-day annual scientific extravaganza underway at the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Studies (STIAS), organized by the South African SKA project. This year's conference according to Prof Leeuw Lerothodi of the School of Graduate Studies University of South Africa (UNISA), “brings together over 100 PhD, Msc and postdoctoral fellows, their supervisors, representatives from the 8 African countries including Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia, Madagascar, Mauritius, Ghana, Botswana, and distinguished international scientists to interact and present their work on the mega SKA project”. The SKA project comprises of international efforts to build what will the the world's largest radio telescope co-hosted by Africa and Australia. With a combined collecting area equal to a square kilometre single dish aperture, the SKA , once completed, will be an extremely powerful instrument that will monitor the sky with unprecedented accuracy achieving speeds up to a thousand times faster than any currently existing instrument.

According to Prof Justin Jonas, the SKA project associate director the idea of bidding to host the SKA in African soil was floated over 14 years ago by a senior member in the South African Department of Science and Technology, and culminated in the launch of the SKA Human Capital Development Programme in 2005 which until today has awarded over 600 grants to students from undergraduate to postdoctoral level. The SA SKA HCD programme has also seen the launch of an ambitious technician training programme for students from South Africa and her 8 SKA partner countries and also supported introduction of astronomy teaching in Kenya, Mozambique, Mauritius and Madagascar (see www.ska.ac.za).

With the first seven dishes of the MeerKAT telescope- a prototype of the SKA- complete and having produced the first radio images, Africa continues to attract huge international interest and has indeed demonstrated her remarkable scientific and engineering skills. Africa has not only shown the world her capability to build a world-class facility such as the SKA, but is also on track to becoming a destination of choice for pioneering scientific discovery! The plane is on the runaway and ready for take off...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

An Elephant in the Room: Eastern-Africa emerging as a Hub of Astronomy in the Region

G. O. Okeng'o

© Copyright by Okeng'o Geoffrey Onchong'a, July 2014

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not whatsoever reflect the official position of any affiliated institution(s) or employer(s), and while the author has put much effort to ensure that the information contained therein is highly accurate; any errors, inadequacies and biased views are highly regretted. Any corrections, concerns, suggestions and complements can be emailed to: geffok@gmail.com

The week: 30th – 4th July 2014, witnessed happening of the “4th Eastern-Africa Astronomy Workshop 2014” held at the Le Palessa Hotel in Kigali-Rwanda. This year's workshop- the fourth among a series of similar such annual meetings conceived as an extension to the legacy of the highly successful International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009)-, brought together Eastern Africa scholars, academics and graduate students to showcase their ongoing research in their institutions under the theme of “astronomy for socio-economic & technological development” . The keynote address was delivered by the Director General in the Department of Science and Technology Rwandan Government Dr Marie Christine Gasingirwa, who reiterated among other things that its time for countries in the East African region to embrace teaching and research in basic applied sciences such as astronomy for the benefit of mankind. This statement was also echoed by scientists from the region led by the current president of the East African Astronomical Society (EAAS)-Prof Paul Baki- of the Technical University of Kenya. The universities from the region represented in this year's meeting included: The University of Nairobi (Kenya), The University of Rwanda (Rwanda), Mbarara University of Science and Technology (Uganda), Kenyatta University (Kenya), Busitema University (Uganda), The University of Burundi (Burundi), University of Dodoma (Tanzania), The Open University of Tanzania (Tanzania), Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia), Kotebe University (Ethiopia) and Dire-Dawa University (Ethiopia). The Entoto Astronomy Observatory and Research Center (Ethiopia)-the first optical observatory in the region launched this year- was also represented by its current director; Dr Solomon Belay. Other key ongoing astronomy projects in the region were also highlighted. These included: the African VLBI Network node at Mt. Longonot (Kenya) and the East African Astronomy Research Network (EAARN).

Kigali Astronomy Fireworks

Known for the moderate high-altitude tropical climate bathed by sunny days all the year round, the city of Kigali- the famed capital city of the “green” East-African state of Rwanda that began as a small colonial outpost in 1907-, was during the period between 30th - 4th July 2014 playing host to the “Fourth Eastern-Africa Regional Workshop in Astronomy” held at the College of Education University of Rwanda. Among the notable guests who attended this year's workshop were: Prof Edward Guinnan from the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Dr David Buckley from the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), Prof Ernst Van Groningen from the International Science Program (ISP) at Uppsala University, Prof Neil Gehrels from NASA, Dr Takalani Nemaungani from the Department of Science & Technology and SKA-South Africa, Prof Derck Smits from the University of South Africa (UNISA) and Prof Paul Baki the president of the East-African Astronomical Society, among other invited delegates and a Rwandan government delegation.

Astronomy and Space Sciences; the fields of science that lie at the heart of mankind's exploration and understanding of our Cosmos, have since the aeons of ancient Greek ages of magic and mythology fascinated and excited all humanity in equal measure-both young and old. Armed with a burning desire to seek answers to some of the grandest questions that perturb the human mind today such as: How did the Universe begin? How and when did the stars and galaxies form? How will the Universe cease to exist? Could there be other intelligent civilizations out there hidden in the expanse of space and time? Does dark energy-the mysterious anti-gravity force tearing our Universe today really exist? If yes, what could be its nature? Astronomers and cosmologists are today, more than ever before, equipped with unprecedented theoretical and technological tools necessary to study the universe with such high precision and accuracy so as to shed some light on these questions and many more with a pregnant possibility of generating new exciting discoveries.

Not to be left behind, the richly resource-endowed continent of Africa, led by the Southern-tip of Africa “Rainbow” nation- the Republic of South Africa- has over the last decade displayed remarkable progress not only in her quest to increase contribution to the world of science especially in the field of astronomy, but also in laying ground to become the next destination of choice, attracting and retaining world-leading scientists and engineers, as well as offering world-class training. These efforts, as evidenced in the ongoing astronomy mega-projects in Africa such as the multi-million dollar SKA project, have began to bear fruits by attracting some of the world's top scientists to live and work in Africa. It is indeed a signal to the start of a dream coming true.

Towards Centers of Excellence in Eastern Africa

In an effort to establish an astronomy teaching and research hub within the Eastern Africa (EA) region, a number of universities in the region are already offering Bsc astronomy and space science programmes and most of them are at various stages of preparation to offer astronomy and space science at postgraduate level. On this note, Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST)-Uganda is, in the next few months, launching the first postgraduate training program that will see joint teaching and co-supervision of Msc and PhD students within the EA region. This initiative, a brainchild of the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme's (NASSP) pioneering Ugandan PhD student- Dr Edward Jurua and Dr Simon Anguma of MUST, is a commendable effort that will enable sharing of the limited human resource within the region and is bound to boost human capacity development in astronomy within EA. This program will complement other postgraduate programs offered at universities in the region as well as help in harmonizing the astronomy teaching and training curriculum in the region.

Apart from the undergraduate and postgraduate training programs, EA will this year see the launch of the East African Astronomy Research Network (EAARN) whose mandate will be to promote the mobility of scientists and lecturers within the region in order to boost collaboration, joint research and teaching by covering their travel costs. The EAARN has already secured initial funding and has just recruited a full-time administrator whose responsibility will be to facilitate the day to day running of both the postgraduate training programme at MUST and the activities of EAARN.

PhDs Increase in the Region

The last 10 years have witnessed a steady increase of the number of PhDs within EA with the NASSP program at the University of Capetown (UCT) playing a central role in training most of the East African students. This, compounded by the increasing number of PhD holders trained outside the region returning home to introduce and teach astronomy programs at their home universities, will undoubtedly position the EA region as a future regional hub in research and teaching of astronomy and space sciences. With more PhD's expected to return home and more programs being launched in EA, the next few years will definitely witness a sharp increase in the number of skilled human capital that will go a long way in helping to bridge the existing astronomy skills gap in the region, and hence provide the necessary manpower needed during the construction, maintenance and utilization of major upcoming projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the African Very Long Interferometry Network (AVLBI).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Kenyan Astrophysicist: Not Missing in Action (MIA)!

By Okeng'o G. O.

Tutorial Fellow, Department of Physics, University of Nairobi and
Doctoral Student, Square Kilometer Array Project (South Africa), based at the Department of Physics, University of the Western Cape (Capetown, South Africa)

© Copyright by Okeng'o Geoffrey Onchong'a, July 2014

Last weekend, while in the midst of sipping away my favorite `thought-consolidating' beverage at one of my famed joints around Mowbray-Capetown, a best friend of mine tabbed my shoulder and asked me wryly: “Mr Kenyan Astrophysicist, what happened to you man? Seems like ages since we heard from you!”. It took me a few sips and a little scratch on my clear-shaven `cosmological' head, to exactly decipher the magnitude of my friend's question. Then when I remembered , I acknowledged with a nad that it has indeed been over a whooping 500 + days (or 43 + million seconds) since I last updated my blog! How could this happen under the Sun unless of course the clocks outside my `enclosure' have been ticking faster of late? I asked myself this question, before taking another sip. Well, my dear esteemed readers and fans, the Kenyan Astrophysicist is back! This special edition provides a brief statement, in his own words, what actually transpired..

You see, they say experience is the best teacher and indeed I have come to fathom the fact that (from my recent experiences) growing up is not an easy feat! And who said it should be anyway? Now, close to eleven thousand days ago when I grew up as a restless young man: full of overzealous energy to conquer the `world', myself, together with other young boys of my age, spent our evenings sitting outside an open fireplace, listening to stories from my self-styled wizened grandfather- the late Mzee1 Johnson Mbaka Ochong'a. Sheltering under the `roof' of the myriads of twinkling stars that lighted up the calm heavens, my grandfather would, perhaps bemused by our youthful demeanour and boyish arguments, calmly reprimand us using a famous Kisii2 african proverb that says: “Yaa kina mobirore timokaga mbinde” which when translated in English simply means “Grow up ye young men thinking otherwise”. This, as I came to understand later is a widely used proverb to warn young men about the eminent challenges of life when one grows up. And yes, I now understand that my grandfather's words were exactly on point. But what does this have to do with the Kenyan Astrophysicist's MIA?

Well, while it is quite tempting to associate my prolonged absence from an important platform such as my blog to probably laziness, a computer breakdown and/or both, I would like to take this earliest opportunity to plead “not guilty” and deny any charges that anyone of you may lay against me. Nevertheless, I must acknowledge and take some of the blame.

So what transpired?

Before 'confessing' where I had been holed up all this while, first some disclaimer: I have to categorically state that my whereabouts in the last couple of months have got nothing to do with either being lazy or inactive! (at least from my frame of reference). Much has been happening, and to agree with my grandfather; I have indeed been 'growing up'-while away! Thanks to my PhD supervisor for the PhD project that has kept be busy in the last two years or so. And as any graduate student would easily acknowledge doing a PhD is in its own right a full-time 'job opportunity' and writing codes (that appear easy at first) in order to solve cosmic problems or analyzing data and publishing good papers can turn out to be a hard nut to crack (well, most of the time). So, patience please! Therefore, if you do not spot me traversing some airports to attend conferences or workshops relevant to my research, you will definitely find me perched on my home or office desk staring at my computer screen and occasionally scribbling some equations in my notebook. That's where I have been!

1A respectable Swahili word for an older person or elder

2Also known as AbaGusii, the Kisii are Bantu people in Nyanza Province, Western Kenya

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bringing science to the people: The African story and the legacy of South Africa

By G O Okeng'o
University of the Western Cape & University of Nairobi

© Copyright by Okeng'o Geoffrey Onchong'a, All Rights Reserved December, 2012

The week ending 8th december, 2012, saw me attend a one week 'Adaptive Optics and Atmospheric Characterization summer school' in the town of Sutherland, South Africa. Adaptive Optics refers to a class of latest technological devises designed to eliminate degradation of star images generated when turbulent motions of air molecules in the Earth's atmosphere interfere with light coming from a star. The in-depth study and scientific modelling of the entire atmospheric layer is what is called atmospheric characterization. The main aim of the school was to bring together some of the world leading experts in adaptive optics technology, software development and atmospheric characterization, and, students from African countries and abroad, to share knowledge on the modern techniques required when choosing a site to locate an optical telescope. However, apart from enjoying the highly illuminating and mind-blowing lecturers delivered by the invited lecturers led by the outstanding South African Large Telescope (SALT) project scientist at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), Dr David Buckley, I also-as I often usually do- found some time to interact and learn from people in the local community. But, although during my helter-skelter walks, I was touched by the obvious signs of visible poverty and idleness amongst the people in this semi-desert Springbok invested area, where the main economic activity is sheep farming, two things stood out above the rest: (1) the impeccable Afrikaans language-accented english and the genuine hospitality of the people, and, (2) the impact of the SALT telescope on the local community's socio-economic status. SALT is the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere and among the largest in the world, commissioned in 2005, and owned by South Africa (1/3) and 12 international partners. To crown it all, an outstanding public educational facility called “the Sutherland Community Development Center (SCDC)” founded under the innovative and visionary leadership of the International Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD)'s current director Kevin Govender, caught my ingenious attention. It is the positive change that this facility with a single sitting capacity of over 100 people and close to 30 modern computers connected to fast internet optical fibre, complete with a baby's toy corner, that motivated me to pen down this article. It's my sincere hope that by reading this article you will be as motivated as me, so that together we can work towards implementing a similar concept for the rural people in our home countries. Together we can transform Africa from a 'basket case' to 'the bread basket'!

Despite mild efforts to improve literacy levels across different countries in Africa, the road leading to the promised land of Canaan where the honey of “100% literacy” flows freely, still remains largely illusive. Access to good education, especially in rural areas and poor townships, remains a challenge, prompting many youth to engage in illegal and criminal activities such as prostitution, thuggery, mugging, drug and substance cartels among others, in order to put bread on their table.

The aging and the old are not left out. They are often frail, sick or both, with their sad grinned faces mirroring a written history of many years of suffering and hard life. Many will often be seen swallowing bitter saliva in anticipation of a better tomorrow. Their hope is that their sons and daughters would one day find decent jobs, that their half-naked, impoverished grandchildren would get a good education and have a better future than theirs. But how many of us of the privileged clout care? Has our leadership failed? Can anyone provide leadership out there?

Your answer to the above questions is as good as mine, but one thing is clear: that many of us have failed! I will tell you why. We have failed to think of how far we have come (for those of us who've surmounted difficulties to succeed-me included) or how privileged we are (for those who've never lacked or struggled in life). We have failed to remember who paid for our college education. Did I hear someone say a government/university bursary? Company bursary? Or my parents money? But where do governments, universities, companies or your parents monies come from? Doesn't it come from taxes levied on all cadres of people directly or indirectly? Doesn't it come from investments, mineral exploration and farming on the land that once belonged to the ancestors of the same poor and disadvantaged people? Aren't we then supposed to plough back to society that which it has given to us?

My late grandfather, a visionary, hardworking and typical African-styled man-may God rest his soul- always reminded me one thing. You see, during the time when I grew up (proudly close to 3 decades ago), in my rural home Kisii Kenya, it was a common phenomenon to pump into mushrooms in the forest while grazing my father's cows or while harvesting guavas in the bushes or during our “wild bees and termite-harvesting” errands. He always reminded me to cut the tip of the mushroom and return it to the hole from which I uprooted the mushroom. Why? He said that by doing so I could return the following day and harvest more mushrooms! And surely I often did-unless someone picked the mushrooms earlier than me- I thought.

But how many of us are willing to return the 'tip' of our mushroom to the 'hole' from which we uprooted the mushroom? We all seem to have locked our hopes in the safes of selfish political mandarins-the often pot bellied elites a majority of whom are merchants of impunity and the epitome of chagrinism- and thrown the keys to “hell”. Whatever that means. But what I'm I talking about? Or can we do better?

Well, my answer is YES. It has been done, it's being done and it can be done, the only question is how. This brings me to the main theme of this article; the story about the Sutherland Community Development Center (SCDC).

The inception:
Mr Kevin Govender, the brain behind the center's concept is a man who needs little introduction. His undying love for astronomy education, and the desire to foster interest in maths and science saw him propel the SALT Collateral Benefits Program-a program that was designed to tap into the investment in the SALT telescope for for the benefit of society- to greater heights. His legacy, while at the helm of leadership of the SALT Collateral Benefits Programme, played a key role in steering South Africa to winning the bid to host the International Astronomical Union's (IAU), International Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), which he currently heads. It is after the establishment of this office, that astronomy has continued to blossom in Africa, and nothing best illustrates this fact other than the recent landmark victory that saw Africa win another bid to host three-quarters of what will be the world's largest radio telescope ever built; the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). More bids are on the way, and africa will win them. The impact of the SCDC project on the local community is one such a 'smaller' bid-and I know there may be other small ones elsewhere in africa- worthy mentioning.

The Objectives:
The SCDC was designed to be a place for the community to grow, to develop and gain life skills, before venturing to the outside world. It's aim was to provide free fast internet to the local community and offer a play and learning facility to small children, the youth and young parents for purposes of their self empowerment.

The Internet Connection:
Internet to the center is provided by two wireless radio links; one installed on a tower on top of the hill facing Sutherland and the other on top of the Community centre building. The former consists of a high-powered 5GHz antennae through which a signal from the SAAO's Sutherland plateau data center is sent and re-routed via the second radio link before being routed via a normal ethernet cable inside the center, and then to all computers. The wireless kits are all solar powered with batteries and continually monitored from the SAAO IT Center in Capetown, in order to send someone with a generator to boost the power supply, incase the battery power levels drop too low. This ensures that the centre is always connected and online.

The Benefits:
Apart from providing the local community with fast internet, providing online research opportunities and a quiet study environment for the youth and learners in the area, the centre also offers free mentorship, guidance and learning assistance to the learners. And according to the Sutherland SALT Collateral Benefits Program director, Mr Anthony Mietas, the number of visitors to the center remains high and it's services are already impacting positively on the lives of the community. The SAAO IT Center's director Hamish Whittal, further points out that phase two of the project will see the only two schools in the area; Roggeveld Intermediary School and Sutherland High School also receive internet connection.

The future of the youth in Sutherland therefore looks bright, or so I can say, and a similar model is worthy adopting across African countries in the quest of making Africa a technology and educational hub!

The Parting Shot:
One unique pillar underpinning success of the SCDC is the power of the volunteers. Indeed, the mentoring and guidance carried out at the centre is done by self-motivated and passionate volunteers who are 'ploughing' back to the society that which it has given to them. But, that is one way and there are many other ways-to skin the CAT. This then reinforces the slogan “It has been done, it's being done and it can be done.”

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Big Science Comes to Africa, Kenya

For many decades, Africa has often been perceived as a place of hunger, famine and disease, where the only valuable form of research should be in food security and health. In this (mis) representation of Africa, the proponents hold the view that Africa is not a place for world-class science and research, but a destination for brief, small scale, short-term targeted projects without longterm returns, and a dumpsite 'market' for obsolete and third-class goods and electronics. I refuse to buy into this. Whereas most Africa nations lack enough resources and strong commitment to promote good science, some credit must, however, be given wherever it's due. Africa has woken up and a big tornado is on it's way, one that will swallow the pessimists still engraved in the past! And moreover, if the technological, infrastructural and economic gains made in the last decade are anything to go by, plus the recently won "African World Cup" that will see construction of the world's largest radio telescope in African soil, then it seems to be indeed business unusual that big science is making it's way to Africa!

In Kenya for example, technological fingerprints are already available for everyone-who cares- to see. From the highly innovative mobile money transfer system M-pesa, mobile technological applications such as M-shamba, M-banking et cetera, to the hi-tech 'seeding' labs being established in preparation for the envisioned Konza technology city, argued to be the next Africa's  Silicon Savanna and the now available government funding towards innovative research, Kenya is-despite a few challenges-, indeed showing signs of the required momentum necessary to turn her into a regional and African technology and educational hub.

However, in this article, I discuss a special form of big science that is making it's way to Africa, and which, harbors a huge potential in transforming Africa into an international scientific hub and a competitive partner in world-class scientific research. First things first, let  me begin with the basics. The science of astronomy allows us to look back in time to the beginning of the Cosmos because the light from distant stars, galaxies and other objects in the universe takes a long time to journey through space before reaching our telescopes (us). We therefore see these distant objects (today) as they were very long time ago; astronomically speaking, “we look back in time”. What this means is that if something was to happen to the Sun now (let's say it switches off!) we can only know this after eight minutes because light from the Sun takes 8 minutes to reach the Earth. We say that the distance to the Sun is eight light minutes. On the other hand, if you wanted to see the nearest star Proxima Centauri as it is now, then you will need to stand and remain where you are for 4 years, because it's only by then that the light emitted today would have arrived! You can then agree with me that by then you would already be four years behind and hence lagging back in time. This is the same principle that astronomers apply to know about everything else in the universe.

As many of you might already know from international news, following months of a highly energized contest between the bids of  South Africa and it's 8 African partner countries among them; Kenya, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Ghana, Madagascar and Mauritius, and, Australia jointly with New Zealand, a landmark breath-taking decision was made last month that saw Africa chosen to host about a third of what would be the world's largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometer Array (abbreviated as SKA) with Australia and New Zealand hosting the remaining part.

What is the SKA?

The SKA will be a revolutionary radio telescope that will be used to make pictures of radio waves instead of light waves, and will consist of thousands of radio wave receptor elements called “antennas”, distributed across the continent, linked together by a highly sophisticated technique in radio astronomy called interferometry-that itself worn a Nobel prize in physics.

The antennae or dishes of the SKA, will be spread across the African continent, across to Australia and New Zealand, so that the sum of effective collecting area of the antennae will be equivalent to a single dish having an aperture with an area of one million square meters, making it the largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built, and over 50 times more sensitive and will allow mapping of the sky more than one thousand times greater faster than the world's largest instruments. .

The Technology of the SKA

To increase it's sensitivity and help provide high resolution images of stars, galaxies and other astronomical objects, the SKA will employ a very special design that will see a concentration of most antennae in a central core while the rest will be arranged to form a spiral pattern such that the spacing will gradually increase from the central core outwards.

The kind of science that will be done by the SKA

The SKA will detect signals in the radio frequency band from space. It will provide astronomers with an insight to: how the first stars and galaxies formed, how magnetic fields formed in the early universe and how this influenced galaxy formation, the nature of dark matter (the non-interacting invisible form of matter that forms about 25% of the universe) and dark energy (the mysterious form of energy that is tearing the universe apart and forms about 74% of the universe), test the famous Einstein's theory of general relativity and hence the nature of gravity, and, last but not least, search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

How much will it cost?

The total approximate budget for the SKA is about 1,500 million Euros, but it could be more

How will Africa benefit from the SKA?

The design, development, construction and operation of the SKA will be done in collaboration with local and selected foreign industries, likely to foster skills transfer and development of local industries and skilled manpower.

Being an international project, the SKA will attract world top scientists and expatriates to Africa hence not only leading to the much needed skills transfer into the continent but also attracting back some of the Africa's top scientists abroad.

Governments will be compelled to train a massive number of engineers, astronomers, software engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and technicians which will boost the amount of skilled manpower.

The massive data handling, transfer, processing and storage will require high performance supercomputers and very fast internet leading to improved internet speeds, data handling and signal processing technologies and interconnectivity.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Are we ALONE in the Universe?

By G. O. Okeng'o 

© Copyright by Okeng'o Geoffrey Onchong'a, All Rights Reserved August, 2012

The question of the origin and the existence of life in the universe is a very controversial one. On a very broad spectrum, the views on this subject, by different individuals, are bound differ according to whether one adopts a religious standpoint or the scientific paradigm. On a more general sense, however, the two pictures seem to complement each other with the former seeking answers to the questions “why” while the latter attempts to address the questions “how”. It is on this basis that it can be argued that science really does not necessarily anyway contradict religion but in actual sense the two co-exist to serve different purposes. However, this may not augur well with some schools of thought who may often want to initiate spirited debates on this subject (this is allowed!) but whose basis is likely to be due to a number of opposing views which I will discuss in a future edition in this series.

However, despite this quagmire enigma and the numerous efforts by scientists to discover other “earths” out there, one thing is as clear as snow; that we all know of only one place where life exists and we can see it today, and that is the planet Earth. But as discussed in my previous article titled “How Big is the Universe?” the Earth occupies only a very tiny portion of the whole universe and using the numbers I provided this ratio comes to about 1:3,000,000,000,000,000,000; that is one part in three billion billion kilometers, where one billion is the number one (1) followed by nine (9) 'zeros'. That's the region of space occupied by us in the universe!

While you digest these numbers, it is also important to further reinforce the fact that the Earth is just but only one planet in our solar system that consists of eight planets (following the demotion of Pluto- I will discuss this in a future edition!), located third from the Sun with Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune being the first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eight respectively, and this system, together with a number of minor objects including dwarf planets, asteroids, meteoroids and rock debris are what makes up our solar system.

A solar system by definition is an 'arrangement' of planets and other smaller bodies that orbit a central star under mutual gravitational attraction. But how many stars (like the Sun) do we have in the universe? How many of them have their own planetary systems? Is there a possibility that some of the planets going around those suns (stars) or some of them could be Earth-like? Could these planets be harboring intelligent life or any other form of life? Are we alone in the universe?

To answer this questions, it's important to draw your attention to the following known facts: scientists estimate that there are about 1 trillion stars in our galaxy and over 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Now, if we temporarily assume that each galaxy is a typical medium-sized galaxy, like our own Milky Way, (not a bad assumption since many of such galaxies are known e.g Andromeda), the total number of stars like the Sun in the universe comes to about 10,000 billion billion! Simple mathematical probability then undoubtedly leads to the (not) so surprising result that it will be very 'selfish' to argue that we are the only creatures existing out here... If true this is likely to violate the fundamental law of natural economics: “thou shalt not waste space”.

But why do scientists care about the existence of life outside the Earth? (extraterrestrial life) or other creatures to be precise? How do they find it? What do they look for? And what have they found so far?

The first question is tricky but easy to answer, the rest are a subject of ongoing research and can only be answered tentatively.

Well, scientists care about existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe because that is science; they are scientists, so they do science! On the other hand, the question of whether we are alone in the universe has vexed humans for a number of centuries and according to a recent television survey in UK published in the Mail Online (29th June, 2012), this is the top-most question among the top mysteries that many people are most desperate to see solved. Second on this list is the cure for cancer, followed by a prove if God exists and as you might have guessed.... further down near the bottom of the list is the question of why the fridge lights do not go off when the fridge door is closed!

The following facts sum up answers to the questions above:

No contact yet with an “Extraterrestrial"

You might have heard, (or probably claimed yourself) that they (you) have been visited by aliens or sighted some Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO's). But how true is this? And what does science say about this? To begin with, no ordinary mortal person can completely say that such creatures do not exist at all or that they haven't visited anybody. However, these claims remain untrue scientifically (unless one captures the alien for everybody to see or captures the UFO so that it can undergo lab verification tests to show that it's indeed an extraterrestrial!). Beyond that, such claims remains entirely unfounded and hence untrue (at least scientifically). To try and verify this idea, astronomers have for many years scanned the sky using powerful telescopes to detect weak signals from extraterrestrial beings but so far nothing has been detected. Relaxed now?

For Life to Exist conditions must be “Just Right”

For a planet to support life, very stringent conditions must be fulfilled. It must for instance among other things; contain sufficient liquid water, be at the “right” distance from it's sun (star) and must be neither too hot nor too cold otherwise all the liquid water would evaporate or freeze, hence support no life.

No spontaneous life

According to scientific findings, for life to develop, there must exist specific initial conditions. If such conditions are not met in a planet, no life would develop.

Vast distances makes finding extraterrestrial life (im)possible

If we could send humans onboard of the Apollo 11 mission that landed men on the moon, the journey to the nearest star Proxima Centauri would take about a million years. What if we can make it accelerate? You can quip! Well, if we send an unmanned mission cruising at the incredibly high one-tenth the speed of light (which is about 30,000 km a second!), the journey would still take over 40 years. However, the success of this will also depend on whether the spacecraft would survive tearing apart from violent collisions with the thousands of grains and loose particles present in space (which is most unlikely). But let us be optimistic enough and assume that the spacecraft survives and completes the journey. Fuel economics then dictates that an enormous amount of power (or fuel) would be needed to fuel this journey. Estimates (it is easy to perform a simple calculation to prove this) show that the amount of energy needed to fuel such a voyage would be equivalent to the total electric power consumption required to power the whole world for one month! Would it then be possible to send missions to other stars in the universe? Simple estimates tells us further (against the wishes of scientists) that not even a combination of all world economies would have the capacity to fuel such a project!

Now you know better; there is simply not enough technological manpower (at the moment) to enable us make contact with our 'friends' out there, so are we alone in the universe? Or what do you think?