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"Big Science for the Big Questions"

- Marina Joubert -

At 67, Roy Booth did not feel ready to retire. "After 25 years as director of Onsala Space Observatory, I did not want to be the old man who dropped in from time to time and I definitely wasn't ready for full time gardening" he explains. "Also, I wanted to give the new director some space." So when the offer came to move from Sweden halfway around the world for a three-year contract in South Africa, the Booths promptly packed their bags.

"My wife has been very supportive, and she is as excited as I am about this new season in our lives" says Roy. "She is an academic in her own right, active in education research, and she is already at Wits University every day". The couple has a daughter heading up a human rights institute in Nairobi and a son in the banking world in London.

As the new science director at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO), Roy looks forward to a range of challenges. High on his priority list are reviving HartRAO's research outputs and coordinating a visitor programme that will bring experts to South Africa to interest and inspire research students. "It is a big challenge for South Africa to attract and retain enough people able to pursue a high level astronomy-related career" say Roy. "I hope I can make a contribution to building this much-needed capacity." He wants to work closely with existing outreach and capacity building initiatives.

"We will need some very bright minds to build a future science base for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) at HartRAO, and in the short term we are going to build and test a prototype antenna of the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) there" he adds. "There's so much more to astronomy, than astronomers. A good engineer can really transform things!"

When asked how to interest young people in a career in astronomy, Roy admits that you can't promise a "get-rich-quick" job, but he's also quick to add that the "extraordinary excitement" of tackling the really big questions more than makes up for that. "After all, if you use astronomy right, it can take you to the ends of the universe!" Being a professional astronomer involves a good deal of discipline and you have to plod through lots of data, he admits. "But, the excitement comes when you find something unusual, when you know this is new."

Roy's immediate dream for HartRAO's education outreach programme is to acquire a small student telescope so that visiting learners can experience the hands-on thrill of pointing and steering a telescope to map and even weigh the Milky Way galaxy. Students from remote schools will be able to participate in these experiments via the internet. He firmly believes that nothing replaces the thrill and inspirational value of such hands-on involvement.

"When you think about our place in the universe, we are terribly insignificant. But astronomy allows us to probe the really big questions such as: How did it all begin? Where do we all come from? Are we alone in the universe? We have mysteries such as dark matter and dark energy to solve. Doesn't that excite you? For me, it is the ultimate thrill! With radio astronomy, we even dare to do interstellar chemistry! In my own research I'm looking at molecules in outer space; the building bricks of the molecules we were all made of."

On 20 May 2006 Chalmers University in Sweden will award the prestigious Chalmers medal to Professor Roy Booth in recognition of his outstanding academic career and contribution to Onsala Space Observatory, one of the world's leading radio astronomy facilities.

Roy Booth
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Roy Booth at the SKA office in Rosebank, Johannesburg, with insignia relating to his new position.

Useful web links for students interested in astronomy and related fields: