Monday, January 21, 2013


Last week I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Sutherland, a small town in South Africa's Northern Cape and home to the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and the Southern African Large Telescocpe (SALT). I was able to both spend time at the observatory to see the telescopes, as well as get a full tour of town to visit schools and talk with local students.

I love how there's something common between all of the observatories I've visited, independent of  global location. Whether in Chile this past year, or in Arizona or Hawai'i before that, all of the observatories I've seen have this refreshing combination of tranquility from the natural world and exciting, cutting-edge technologies that have the potential to make ground-breaking discoveries nightly. Sutherland was no different in that regard, and in a way, arriving at the SAAO felt like I was returning to something comforting and familiar.
The SALT telescope with Orion above.

What's different about Sutherland, however, is a clear and intentional link from the observatory to the people in the neighboring community. For example, at the observatory site itself, there's a "community dome" halfway up the hill between the visitors center and the big telescopes. This open-roof geodesic is meant for all people to come and observe the stunning Sutherland night sky. The inclusion of the community also extends beyond the observatory site and into the town through projects from the SALT Collateral Benefits Program (SCBP). More on that in a minute, but first, a bit about the town of Sutherland.
Community dome with SALT in the background.
Sutherland is a small rural town in the Northern Cape known for its its sheep farming, the occasional snow and its clear night skies. Fifteen years ago, Sutherland received only a few dozen visitors per month, but since the inauguration of SALT in 2005, tourism has boomed in Sutherland, with over 13,000 visitors annually. This brought in outsiders from the tourism industry, leading to a creation of multiple astronomy-themed guest houses, restaurants, and tourism agencies. This has indeed boosted the economy of Sutherland, but problems such as unemployment, alcoholism and low levels of education still plague the small town, and remnants of apartheid are still shockingly visible.
The town of Sutherland
An example of an astro-themed site in town
On Wednesday, I got a tour of Sutherland and had the opportunity to see the many projects funded by the SALT Collateral Benefits Program designed to address these remaining problems. My tour guides, Willem and Anthony are both from Sutherland originally. Anthony is now the Sutherland manager for the SALT Collateral Benefits Program and Willem is one of the tour guides of the observatory. Through them, I learned about Sutherland's history, its current realities, and how the observatory is fitting in.
My Sutherland hosts and tour guides, Willem (left) and Anthony (right)
The biggest and most holistic project from the SCBP I saw was the Sutherland Community Development Center, equipped with 25 computers, free WiFi and printing, a small library, a study area with individual desks and a kids play area. This center provides a free and safe space for kids to do their homework, adults to use the internet to look for jobs or take online courses, and a place where people can come together for community meetings or gatherings. The idea and plan for the community center came out of extensive meetings with members of the community who expressed what they wanted for Sutherland. In this way, it is a space that is utilized and valued by the people of Sutherland. If the SAAO and National Research Foundation (NRF) had just created a space without any community input, I think it would not have been as successful as it is today.
Sutherland Community Development Center

On Thursday, I spent the day with Willem and Anthony in two of Sutherland's schools to chat with the kids about astronomy. Perhaps because it was the second day of school after summer vacation, or because the kids do not speak English as their first language (Sutherland is a primarily Afrikaans-speaking town), or because I didn't have enough time in the classes for the kids to get to know me, overall participation was low and kids kept quiet.

I did get some ideas from them, and it was clear that some kids were interested in the subject. They all said that they could see many many stars at night, but students were reluctant to say what it was about the stars that appealed to them. Most said they liked to look at the stars because they were pretty and sparkly, but didn't go into depth about that. When I asked where the stars came from or what they're made of, some said dense gases or the Big Bang, while others credited God or Jesus. Two girls came up to me during the break and asked how both answers could be simultaneously true, and I gave my standard diplomatic answer about how part of being an adult and a scientist is being critical of the information you're given and making opinions for yourself. I'll be returning to Sutherland with the UNAWE-South Africa team in February, and so it will be nice to go back and engage with the kids more through activities that may allow them to be more comfortable and open up.

Besides seeing the town, a major highlight of my trip was just hanging around the observatory and seeing the telescopes. Here is a picture with me and the SALT telescope (again, the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere!)
On the catwalk of the SALT telescope. With a diameter of 9.8m, this is the largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere
The views of the surrounding hills were stunning, and I was lucky enough to witness some dramatic thunderstorms (lucky for me, not for the astronomers that couldn't observe). I even got a few lightning strikes on camera!
The sunsets in Sutherland were phenomenal. Colors not enhanced.  
Lightning photo number 1

Pseudo-lightning photo with views of the clear skies above. Note the Pleiades in the top left corner.
That's all for now. In the weeks ahead, I'm looking forward to getting into schools around Cape Town and starting to engage with students here. I'm grateful for the opportunity to work with the students in Sutherland, and hope that experience will help me shape future school visits to make them more interactive, comfortable and informative. Special thanks to Willem and Anthony for making this such a wonderful and meaningful trip!

1 comment:

  1. very interestng, the pictures and also your work.