Kids with their heads in the cloud will solve today's mysteries tomorrow
A research cloud has been created to store the huge volume of information generated by SKA
As you are reading this, somewhere in a classroom in South Africa, a primary school pupil is staring out the window at the blue skies above.
One day, she will be processing big data that the rest of us could not even conceive of, and she will tell us about the history of the universe – unlocking astronomical secrets that are billions of years old.
Until now, those secrets have been so inaccessible to us that we have had no need to store the endless information we must work through to unlock them.
Now, scientists across the globe are having to work together after the most powerful radio and optical telescopes ever built are delivering up more information than we know what to do with – and three South African universities are at the helm.Russ Taylor is director of the IDIA (Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy) which launched the IDIA Research Cloud on Monday at the Iziko Planetarium in Cape Town – a cloud built especially to deal with all the data.
“These advances in technology will address fundamental questions about the universe like if we are the only intelligent life out there,” he said.
The three universities that make up IDIA are the University of Western Cape, the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria.
In explaining why this “cloud” is needed, he said that the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – and its precursor MeerKAT which was launched two weeks ago with its 64 dishes in the Northern Cape – “has created a data monster, and now we have to solve that problem”.But, the secrets of the galaxies are not the only knowledge being unlocked by big data and our ability to store it and process it.
On the surface of our little planet called Earth, younger generations are using words many of us have never heard of, and preparing for careers that did not exist in thought or reality not too long ago.Dr Sarah Blyth, an astronomy academic at UCT who is part of IDIA, said we will be doing science in a “new way”.
With one phase of the Square Kilometre Array scheduled for completion in 2020, “the graduates who will use it are currently in high school” while those who will grapple with the second phase “are children who right now are still in primary school”.
She said they will be the ones leading it one day.“The future looks very bright,” she added.
For Sibusiso Mdhluli, a master of science student at the University of the Western Cape, the ever-changing world of astronomy is creating new career paths for young people.
As he sharpens his skills in the world of machine learning, he says: “Astronomers used to look at pictures and see what was interesting to them. Now, with the technology we have available, they take millions of images and a machine can then produce images for them in seconds by feeding all the data into an algorithm.”