The Template of Life: Lessons on Strategic Thinking

The Botswana International University of Science & Technology hosted Professor David Block, one of South Africa’s foremost communicators in science and a winner of the BHP Billiton Award. This insightful Lecture took place on Monday the 26th February 2018 at the BIUST campus in Palapye.

Professor Block addressed a capacity packed auditorium at BIUST, on the theme of “Templates of Life: Lessons on Strategic Thinking.” He was formally introduced by Professor Michael Bode, who is currently a Visiting Professor at BIUST. One of the plethoras of topics addressed by Block in the BIUST Auditorium is cosmic dust, the material of which you and I are made.

The space between stars, interstellar space, is not, as had been assumed for a long time, empty. While traditionally, astronomers were concerned with stars, their composition, distribution and movement many astronomers are now turning their telescopes to detect particles that inhabit interstellar space. This includes cold cosmic dust.

Cold dust had been detected in our own Milky Way, but its existence in other galaxies remained speculation, until Professor David Block, from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, spearheaded an international team of astronomers, who unambiguously detected cold dust between the spiral arms of other galaxies. The legendary theoretician Professor Mayo Greenberg was ecstatic. Aside from its biological significance as the stuff of life itself, its pervasiveness obscures our view of distant galaxies, and its discovery forces astronomers to look anew at the structure of the entire universe and its constituent parts. Professor Block has a long and distinguished career in the field. Having drawn the attention of eminent astronomers with a paper on relativity and black holes written at the age of 19 (when he was also elected a fellow of Royal Astronomical Society of London), he is currently the only scientist on the African continent whose research has twice been featured on the cover of the world’s most prestigious scientific journal Nature. Professor Block also accompanied the world’s most famous living scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking, to meet former President Nelson Mandela in Houghton.

Block has been a visiting astronomer at the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii, where some of the greatest telescopes are situated atop an extinct volcano, Mauna Kea. Telescopes equipped with these special infrared devices were pointed heavenward, and Block was shocked at the images they rendered. What he saw looked totally different to the optical pictures that traditional telescopes showed.

One of the holy grails in astronomy is now to determine exactly how the shapes of individual galaxies change, as a function of time. Working together with the legendary Kenneth Freeman FRS in Australia, Block is the author of the book “Shrouds of the Night”. But Block is also involved in other pursuits. Being keenly aware of a shocking rate of despair and even suicide amongst the youth, Professor Block has devoted much of his career to motivating people to always look up – by exposing them to the wonders astronomy, as he did in BIUST.

One word describes the feedback received from the audience here at the BIUST auditorium: his lecture was, they said, “phenomenal”. The atmosphere in the BIUST auditorium was electric, as Block engaged the audience. Students thronged the stage to have their photographs taken alongside Professor Block. The lecture at BIUST was broadcast live on Gabz FM.

Block remembers the encouragement given to him by his father, who had a special observatory built at their home in Mogale City to allow the young David to pursue his new-found interest in astronomy, and he is firmly convinced that by encouraging both university students and school learners in Botswana, this would have a profound impact on igniting their mindsets, ultimately for many young people from BIUST to be pioneers on the global arena.

Meanwhile, a major milestone has just been passed in astronomy by BIUST. The University has been designated by the Government of Botswana as the Host Institution of the Botswana element of the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Array (AVN). This will see a giant radio dish (or dishes) for astronomy being built and operational in the country within the next 5 years. The AVN then links similar instruments together across the continent to work as one giant radio telescope. This is just the start as the AVN project paves the way for Botswana’s active participation in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The SKA is the largest ground-based astronomy project ever conceived. It will ultimately result in radio telescopes being spread from Africa, through Australia, all the way to New Zealand. SKA will then act as one giant instrument capable of delving into the mysteries of the Universe as no one has been able to do before. Botswana is set to host over one hundred of these dishes over the next decade or so and the scientific and technological spin-off will be huge. Moreover, the advent of the Square Kilometer Array project will go a long way in encouraging local scholars to pursue careers in science and technology.

This will add the much needed strategic positioning geared towards BIUST as an international partner. BIUST plays a key role in providing its expertise and developing indigenous knowledge solutions to solve African and Global problems through the utilization of international talent and the transfer and adoption of global knowledge solutions and their adaptation to local needs.