In South Africa, the science of physics is today caught in a situation of paradox. “For physics in South Africa, it’s the best of times and the worst of times,” asserts South African Institute of Physics (SAIP) president Professor Irvy ‘Igle’ Gledhill. “We have tremendous projects, such as the biggest radio telescope in the world, and, at the same time, we have a crisis in education. We have to handle both things at the same time.”
Problems are being encountered in educating undergraduate students in physics. “This is a main concern of heads of physics departments at universities in the country,” she reports. “The SAIP helped out by reviewing the undergraduate situation last year.” This review was conducted by a group of experts, including 2001 Nobel Physics Prize winner Professor Carl Wieman.
“One of the main observations was that South African students are hampered by not being prepared to enter first year at university,” states Gledhill. “This is a long-standing problem, but the scale has become much greater and it’s a [growing] problem.” Of course, there are excellent students who will succeed in their courses. But action is needed to help the others.
“The concern is to ensure that young researchers come through university with really sound basic concepts,” she explains. “Their first degrees should give them a really solid understanding of physics concepts, because they’ll need it. If they don’t have the fundamental concepts, they can’t learn quickly. This applies in both research and industry – especially in industry, where young researchers take up huge responsibility very fast.”
The lack of preparedness on the part of too many undergraduates has focused the attention of the South African physics community on the state of science education in the country’s schools. She points out that knowledge of physics (at both school and undergraduate level) is important for a wide variety of professions and disciplines, including engineering and health.
As a result, the community is eager and willing to help support the country’s schools with regard to science education. “Our community wants to see this country working!” affirms Gledhill. “We really have to offer this kind of support, and also assist schools when invited. And this is happening.” Part of the support the SAIP can offer to schools is career guidance. This can be done by means of brochures, other sources of information and identifying exemplars (role models) for the pupils. “We have an especial focus on young women and their career choices,” she points out.
But there is also a bright side for the discipline. “We have lots of brilliant research challenges as well,” she enthuses. “There are nuclear physics collaborations, theoretical physics collaborations and we have postgraduate students coming through. There’s a great deal of research in renewable energy going on – a lot on photovoltaics, for example, and a lot of work on energy strategy. We have wonderful condensed matter physicists. The theoretical people are outstanding.”
In photonics, she points out, South Africans have developed the digital laser. Work in this field benefits from the existence of the National Laser Centre, its infrastructure and programmes. It is a driver of optical and photonics research in the country. “Extremely good work is being done in South Africa.”
With its long astronomical tradition, the country naturally has overlapping astrophysics, space sciences and planetary sciences communities. “We have an excellent astroparticles group.” There is also an increasing interest in computational physics.
“We have brilliant medical physics faculties,” observes Gledhill. “Health physics incorporates the people who determine safe doses for nuclear medicine: we don’t have enough of such people. The mathematics behind the CAT Scanner [Computed Axial Tomography – using a computer to create a three-dimensional image from multiple two-dimensional X-ray pictures] were developed by a South African, [Allan MacLeod Cormack], who won the Nobel Prize [in 1979].”