Years ago, Nasa’s Voyager probe took a series of “family portraits” of the solar system that showed, famously, Earth as a “pale blue dot” and challenged our sense of self-importance. For many this feeling is scary, realising that, even though we feel so central to everything around us, the world really doesn’t revolve around us. Our worries and fears are less significant to the cosmos than we believe.
The scale of the universe inspires our sense of adventure, our desire to dream and strive. It is that passion in all of us that makes us trailblazers at heart.
Our drive to be explorers, to forge out a path in our own lives, comes with its own challenges and fears: fears about whether or not we’ll be successful and have an impact; fears over whether we’ve chosen the right path to be risking everything on in the first place.
As a cosmologist, I spend my time asking questions about what the universe is made of, how it got to look the way it does today and, eventually, how it will end. I hope I get to ask these questions for the rest of my life, and answer them as best I can. However, on a cosmic timescale, nothing we do will change the fate of the universe.
While some might find this a bit discouraging, it is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake that is so beautiful about cosmology. It is an expression of the most amazing part of us as human beings – the ability to learn and understand.
Our sense of wonder that makes us hunger for knowledge and strive for perfection is what makes us a pioneering species that is constantly evolving and growing.
I want to do cutting-edge research, to teach students about science and to change the nature of the scientific field I work in to be more inclusive and diverse. There are times when I question my ability to do any of these things. I’ve had many incredibly supportive mentors over the years, but, even then, there have been times when I’ve thought I wasn’t strong enough. What if I can’t get this bug in my code to work? What if I’m not a good mentor to these students? What if I can’t get my colleagues to be more welcoming and supportive to female faculty members? I’ve encountered issues in each of these avenues in my career, and it often takes strength to just keep looking straight ahead, and not listen to the voices that say you aren’t going to make it. One of the most beautiful natural things about South Africa is not only her land, but also her skies. The sky glitters with stars and galaxies that are not visible in the northern hemisphere, which we want to view and understand. Right now telescopes are being built in the southern hemisphere, such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will have many dishes in the Karoo and in other sites in Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Zambia.
The SKA will connect us to our wonderful natural heritage. Our great African sky is a constant reminder to us to look up in wonder, to embrace the unknown no matter how overwhelming the challenge might be. With our focus on the sky we will discover new galaxies and structures and trace out gas and dust in the universe – and learn about what it is made of and how it is evolving. I believe that South Africans are perfectly positioned to be those fearless leaders. We come from a country whose destiny was changed by those who saw the potential for change as more important than the fear of it. Being a pioneer is not about being fearless, or pretending to be. What pushes pioneers out of their comfort zones is simply the drive to reach for something that lies beyond fear. It is the knowledge that the next step forward might bring results that you might not have expected. It teaches you to embrace, not fear, the unknown. And that is a quality we can all reach for in our own universe. The cosmos will slowly unravel beautiful secrets about the universe, and I look forward to being able to learn those secrets. We have so many more amazing discoveries waiting to uncover and discover on this pale blue dot we call home. What a privilege that is.
– Renée Hlozek