So you’re a systems engineer? So what’s that?

Abstract: SKA Africa employs systems engineers. So what do they do?... Carl Sagan was probably the world's greatest systems thinker. Over the course of 13 episodes of his seminal 1980s TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage he managed to weave a thread through the billions of galaxies, the billions of neurons in the human brain, and everything in between, and in the process make us wonder about our purpose in the universe. If he were alive today he'd see those connections taking shape at SKA Africa in the minds and work of the systems engineers. According to SKA Research Professor at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Chairman of the SKA Cosmology Working Group, Roy Maartens, researchers at SKA Africa have "devised a means of using the world's largest telescope in new ways that will help shape the future of cosmology". That

The unwelcome eye of journalism

Abstract: There's been a nasty shift in South African journalism...

Swimming upstream is a challenging endeavour - ask any salmon - but when the end task is a noble one, even if death - as in the case of the Pacific salmon - follows shortly thereafter, it can be argued that it's worth it. However, fighting against a tide of tabloid journalism has left science journalists wondering if it isn't easier to completely change species.

Anyone entrusted with trying to get more science and critical thinking into the media, will be familiar with the edict of most editors that their readers, viewers or listeners 'don't have an appetite for science'. This is of course utterly ridiculous because we are all consumers of science; there isn't a single element to our lives, and how we live it, that isn't examined or improved on by science.

But there's

The state of science journalism in South Africa

Abstract: In a country racked by violent crime, political infighting and scientific ignorance, the quest of the science journalist mirrors that of a famous Greek mythical hero... According to Greek mythology, Prometheus, a titan, forged mankind from clay, and knowing that mankind needed fire to survive, he lit a torch from the sun and brought it to Earth. Zeus considered the fire stolen, and was so incensed he punished Prometheus - an immortal - by having him chained to a rock, and a giant eagle tear at his liver every day. It's a myth imbued with themes of discovery, bravery and loyalty; but the bringing of knowledge, represented by fire, to mankind, is why the analogy of Prometheus is used by the University of Stellenbosch's Professor George Claassen to describe the state of science journalism in his country. Prof Claassen is the popular archetype of

Remember your equations?

Abstract: A measure of worth for a leader lies in simple equations... There's a simple test to see if a person in a position of leadership has got what it takes to make effective decisions - ask them to explain the following equation: F=ma. If it's got you stumped, it's no use skimming through the myriad business management books collecting dust in your office; you won't find it there. You'll have to think back to when you were a lot younger. During the late 1990s I was part of a company that designed and presented science shows at schools and science centres. I've lost count of the number of schools I visited, but suffice to say I became something of an odd fixture in science education, pacing the school halls in my red lab coat crawling with plastic spiders, carrying my black box plastered

Light at night sets off alarm bells

Abstract: A branch of science believes bedtime reading increases the risk of breast cancer... For a parent, there are few things more rewarding than the excitement shown by a child when reading them a bedtime story; but there's a branch of science that fears that such a critical parenting role may increase a child's risk of developing the most common cancer found in South African women. Such a summation may not seem out of place in the unfortunately imbalanced rhetoric of poor health reporting typically found in tabloids. You can imagine the headline: "Mother Goose causes cancer!" But the reality is that those conducting research in the discipline of chronobiology - a relatively new branch of science concerned with the internal biological clocks of various living organisms - are concerned that using artificial light at night poses a risk of developing breast cancer. A

The stars and you and the uncomfortable truth

Abstract: The truth about astrology may be a little uncomfortable...but there is a twist... Those who know me are well aware of the special place in my toolbox for those who believe in astrology. It's a compartment that holds a set of jumper cables, which I use to jolt believers of astrology into the real world. However, and to this I must admit, there's a sliver of truth in what they believe; and what's more, there's a twist. Because there's always a twist. Astrology is one of those things that we've inherited from the dark pages of history, when ignorance of science was painted over with the murky hues of occultism. In a way it's like a nasty rash that people love to pick at to see what's underneath. Back in its formative years, supposed 'wise men', known as soothsayers, would conjure up all

A lesson in leadership from Douglas Adams

Abstract: The true power of a leader's voice lies in a lesson from science and space... There's a pivotal saying in the world of journalism: content is king, context in King Kong. In brief it means that whereas what is said in a burst of text is important, its accuracy and correct interpretation - and therefore its impact - is ensured only if it is placed within the correct frame of reference. This same saying should be the preface of every handbook on sound leadership. Like every other science journalist I whooped with joy and punched the air when the Mars Curiosity rover completed its treacherous voyage to the red planet and settled, on cue, into its predetermined landing area. It was the accumulation of years of commitment, insight and wisdom from hundreds of dedicated scientists and thinkers from all over the world. The

Fairer sex? Yeah, sure

Abstract: There is nothing fair about the so-called fairer sex... Now that we're into the final week of Womens' Month, perhaps we can finally say goodbye to that phrase that has everything, and nothing, to do with women: the wholly inaccurate, grossly outdated and altogether condescending epithet: 'the fairer sex'. I can imagine you've gathered by now that I find the phrase 'the fairer sex' more than a little jarring. Every time I hear it being used it has the effect of someone tapping me very firmly on my forehead. It's not hurtful, but it is highly irritating and completely out of place in polite social discourse. Yet, it's somehow still hanging around, resolutely hooked into popular discussion; and it seems to be used, often a little too casually, to somehow encapsulate everything that is 'woman'. It worms its way into sentences such as, "We

So men only use 10% of their brains?

Abstract: I think we need to nip this one in the bud right away... If you nodded when you read this headline, then I'm afraid you must believe that a prince in Nigeria has left you a fortune and simply needs your banking details to make payment. You see this also an urban myth. However, it's one that masks an insidious undercurrent of dark forces, more attractive than your typical 419 scam, yet equally primed to rob you of your money. I overheard this gem one day while sipping a cappuccino and pondering upon the topic for my next column. Two women, flushed from a busy morning's shopping had collapsed into chairs at the table beside me. They were speaking loudly for no other reason other than to emphasise their frustration with the attention (or not) of a male shop assistant. It's at moments like

Turn down the din!

Abstract: You haven't realised it, but things are getting louder. I said, "You haven't realised it, but...!", oh, never mind... Imagine the scene...a romantic dinner with your, wait; let's make it sexy...a romantic dinner with your lover. The food is simply scrumptious and you're both thrilled you chose a fine restaurant for your little tête-à-tête. The wine has a charismatic, zesty character, made all the more evident by the second bottle you're half way through; but there's something wrong...a horrible nagging, make that 'irritating', intrusion that's spoiling the moment. It's the shrill wail of Celine Dion coming from the speaker above you, and she's just the wedge. Many years ago, the radio station at which I was working employed a particularly dedicated senior technical manager. Every morning he'd come into the studio and ask if there were any problems, and most of the