Travelogues, Part 2: Cape Town, South Africa

This summer has included a LOT of travel. Here is the next installment of my travelogues! (See also, Part 1)

(As usual, all writing on this blog is solely my opinion and does not reflect the attitudes of any of my projects, institutions, colleagues, etc…)

June 22: Day 1 in Cape Town

We met up with Jason Manley, PAPER collaborator who works for the SKA-SA. (Or, Square Kilometer Array – South Africa.) Jason had been to Green Bank, West Virginia, once before, so it was good to see a familiar face. I sat in the front passenger seat on the way in to the SKA office, and that was totally strange! If I didn’t look to the right, it was as if the car was driving itself! Really, of course, Jason was driving from the right side of the car as we drove on the left side of the road. I kept trying to mentally navigate through intersections as we went, and found myself totally confused. Though I’d like to give driving here a try (in an automatic vehicle) I am certainly in no rush to do so. I find it rather amusing that with a United States driver’s license I can legally hop into a car and go, though the experience is completely reverse! Amusing… or terrifying.

Parts of the correlator, or the ROACH boards designed by Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Lab

SKA-SA is located on the third floor of an office building which is rather lovely, despite the fact that one of three lifts (aka elevators) is known to get stuck, so no one uses it. The Square Kilometer Array is a very large radio telescope that is already two decades in the planning, and at least a decade away from coming a reality. The international collaboration strives for it to be the be-all end-all of radio telescopes, though, quite naturally, the reality is always a bit harsher. When I was a summer student for the first time in 2003, I heard all about SKA and the many countries that were bidding to host it and the slew of theoretical telescope designs, from spheres to an array of Arecibo-like dishes, to a VLA-like array on steroids. Today, the designs, though far from being set, include standard dishes and dipoles to cover the mid-frequency ranges and low frequencies, respectively. Two countries are in the finals for hosting this massive telescope, Australia and South Africa. From what I can tell, South Africa really, really wants it. They have political support which helped the SKA team establish a radio quiet zone in the Karoo. Astronomy is highly valued politically, and plenty of funding has been set aside for science and math education. Gee, it must be nice to live in a country where your scientific contributions are so highly valued by politicians!

The SKA-SA group currently has a prototype in the field, right where we’re about to go in a few days. The Karoo Array Telescope, or KAT-7, has seven 12-meter dishes arranged in an array and has been used to develop and test a method of building composite dishes on site, measure the accuracy of the surfaces, build feeds and receivers that would work well in the mid-range frequencies, and actually go through the process of running an observatory and taking data. I look forward to seeing all this in action. The next step will be a larger array called MeerKAT (literally, “More KAT”) which has an adorable fuzzy meerkat as its mascot.

MeerKAT meets DSBK's Moonica!

We took a tour of the office and had a lovely Thai lunch with some of the correlator developers. Also, I finally had an internet connection that I didn’t have to spend $8/hour for. Jason explained that South Africa has had a rough history of internet pricing, as only one fiber came into the country for a long time, leading to an expensive monopoly and restricting of data flow. Only recently have a few more lines and companies come in, and competition is happily driving down the pricing.

An interesting note about the money here. The South African Rand is something like R6.7 to $1US. So my immediate reaction to every price is sticker shock. “R51 for a lunch plate!” And then I quickly make the calculation to US dollars in my head and realize, hey, that’s an excellent price. A frugal grad student could be very happy here. (Well, one on a US salary, anyway. I’m sure it all scales to match in the long run.)

We did some grocery shopping, at least for non-perishable items, while Niesa, SKA-SA’s amazing administrator, tracked down our shipment that was still stuck in customs in Johannesburg. It looked as if we were not going to be heading out for the Karoo in the morning as we’d hoped, but we would have another day in Cape Town. Good thing, since I still hadn’t been able to see Table Mountain with the low clouds and constant rain! Did I mention that it is winter here? In any case we got our trolley (aka cart) and went shopping at the Pick and Pay. I actually found Jelly Babbies, giant ones at that!

Drinking water for reasons to be explained in a future post...

Back at the office, we noticed that there was a rooster crowing all day outside our window, which is odd for a city girl like myself. We met up with Justin Jonas, a scientist with whom I had met during a very memorable visit to the Green Bank Telescope. He took us all the way up to the company that is making the feeds for KAT7. This small company had done primarily electromagnetic modeling, but happily jumped into feed design and building in order to be a part of the SKA effort. That was certainly exciting to see, especially since they are learning to do radio astronomy for the very first time. It was impressive to see all that they had accomplished, they they admitted themselves that they learned a great deal from doing it once and have decided to change things up a bit for MeerKAT.

You can tell which office it is by the feed hanging out on the balcony!

The drive took us closer to another mountain range where the original Dutch settlers had driven the native population over the mountain range where they found further distress from advancing tribes from the north. Thus, Justin quipped, began the racial tensions that still plague South Africa today. We also drove through the area known as the Cape Flats, infamous for its shanty towns and settlements full of shacks. Suddenly, the movie District 9 took on a whole other dimension to me. Interestingly, when you look closely at these shacks, several of them have satellite TV dishes on the roof. And almost all seemed to have electrical lines running in to them. Justin even mentioned that you’ll occasionally find nice cars among the settlements, as a few people seem to prefer to spend their money on things other than housing. For the most part, however, the settlements are a sign of a financially troubled population that made their own homes where they could rather than be homeless in the city.

That afternoon, I got very sleepy again, likely leftover from the flights. I slept right through dinner. Later, I discovered that in my sleepy haze I had forgotten to write down my wireless internet password, and the only option was to have it emailed to me. Argh! So I sheepishly knocked on Rich’s hotel door and asked to borrow his internet in order to retrieve the email. I also found the hotel vending machine which included, no kidding, cans of beer. There were candy, chips, soda, and beer. In the vending machine. That you would never see in the US. I went for a minty candy bar called Aero, made by Nestle. Think we can petition to get them in the States?


Come back for more, soon!

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