New Scientist

Democratize Astronomy Now!

Why every country in Africa should have a research telescope.

The SALT (Southern African Largest Telescope).

The SALT (Southern African Largest Telescope) in South Africa

Photo by Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images.

Hakeem Oluseyi is an astronomer at the Florida Institute of Technology. He is the founding president of the African Astronomical Society, technical executive officer of the National Society of Black Physicists, and a 2012 TED Global Fellow.

Liz Else: You’ve got a plan to democratize astronomy. Can you tell me about it?
Hakeem Olusevi: One way is the One Telescope Project, to be launched next month. We aim to put one research telescope in every country, starting with African and Southern Hemisphere nations. There are 54 African countries but only three with telescopes: South Africa, Egypt, and Namibia. Nigeria, by the way, has produced as many black astronomers as the United States. Elsewhere in Africa, people have tried to popularize astronomy for years, but they are not doing the science.

LE: Is it just lack of cash that is holding astronomy back in these countries?
HO: It is, but two things have changed. First, as we’ve studied the universe, we’ve wanted to look deeper so we made telescopes bigger and bigger. As a result, the best telescopes are too sensitive to look at bright objects such as the nearby stars.

Secondly, there is now an amazing opportunity for small telescopes to discover and characterize new planetary systems, as well as measure the structure of the Milky Way. Astronomers are no longer looking at high-definition pictures but at HD movies, scanning for objects that change and for transient ones. A 4-inch telescope was used to discover the first exoplanet by the transit method, where you watch the brightness vary.

LE: Are these tiny telescopes expensive?
HO: They are a lot cheaper than people think: A 1-meter telescope costs $300,000. Reduce the size by 60 percent, and it falls to just $30,000. I’m working with an exoplanet discovery team for a survey called KELT, Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope, and there are the HATNet and WASP surveys—all small telescopes, capturing the same part of the sky every night. Bring them together and you have a movie. Once a potential discovery is made, though, you must follow up to confirm and characterize it. We’re finding exoplanet candidates at such a rate, we need to bump up what we’re doing.

LE: Where should we put these telescopes that follow up on initial observations?
HO: There are far fewer telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere compared to the north, yet the southern skies are really dark. Folk have come up with the idea of a global telescope network before, but they think conservatively—they put telescopes in places where they have friends. It’s science first, convenience first. I say put the people first.

LE: Why? Surely science should come first?
HO: Why do we do science? What’s the value? I have a different answer. A scientific education transforms a person’s life. In the case of astronomy, when we put the science first, great science gets done but people get left out. If we put people first, great science will still get done but we will advance knowledge and education locally. We can do good science and change lives. I know this because of what happened to me.

LE: Tell me more about your early life.
HO: My father dropped out of school aged 9. Almost nobody in my community went to college and certainly didn’t go into graduate education or into sciences. Through much luck and much hard work, I ended up getting accepted for graduate studies at Stanford University after attending Tougaloo College, a small historically black college in Mississippi.

LE: What was your upbringing like?
HO: I grew up in a very crazy way. We moved every year between tough neighborhoods in Houston, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and rural Mississippi. I didn’t play outside a lot because as the perpetual new kid I had to fight to establish myself in the pecking order. In our home, we had two books—the set of World Book encyclopedias and the Bible. By 10, I’d read both from cover to cover. In the encyclopedias, I discovered Albert Einstein and relativity. I loved the fact that time slows when you move faster. My mother dropped out of school at 16, but she was fully supportive of me. I’d come home and on the table would be library books she got for me.

LE: How did life start to change?
HO: I had been using my girlfriend’s computer—the kind you hook up to a television. There was a little booklet that taught you basic BASIC. I would make it print my name 100 times in a row. I thought it was so cool. When some guys invited us kids to take part in a science fair, I thought, I’ll do the relativity equations on the computer. I won first place in physics in the Mississippi State Science Fair. At that time, I lived in rural Mississippi where older people would still address any white person, even a 12-year-old kid, as “yes ma’am, yes sir.” Winning in a field like physics showed me I could be in a different place but, truthfully, I didn’t fully believe it.

LE: Were you a wild child?
HO: Yes. I was taught you’re a young black dude. You’ve got to be tough, be a gangster. And I was. I carried a gun every day. I dropped out but went back and took physics classes. I discovered that because I taught myself so much physics for fun, I could just show up for exams and blow the class away. But I also knew I would need to learn mathematics, and I was horrible at it. I came up with an idea to do every problem in the calculus book. After that, I never got lower than A in mathematics again.

LE: How did you end up at Stanford University?
HO: From 1979 to 1989, Stanford graduated 30 black Ph.D.s in physics—more than anywhere. This was because William Shockley, inventor of the transistor and a professor there, was an outspoken racist and Stanford wanted to repair its reputation. One group on the board said, let’s recruit top black physics students from MIT or Morehouse College—people who would do well regardless. But others said, no, let’s do this right and find smart people who have never had the educational opportunity.

LE: How did you cope at Stanford?
HO: I was their guinea pig. My education was so poor I had to do two years of undergraduate courses to prepare myself for the graduate courses and the qualifying exam. One thing I learned in my upbringing was to be self-sufficient—we farmed, hunted, fished. Every kid learned a work ethic. I took that and my perseverance along. When they said, “you can’t do it”—that was my motivation.

LE: Did you do well?
HO: Oh my goodness, it was terrible. We had a qualifying exam, and I failed the first time. But my Ph.D. adviser, the late great Arthur Walker, believed in me and encouraged me to try again. I did. I made it. You know the craziest thing now? I felt so mistreated—it was competitive, I was out of Mississippi, a country bumpkin in the palace. When I run into these people they say: “Hakeem, you were one of the smartest ones!” I laugh and wonder, when did you develop that opinion?

LE: How did you get involved in African science?
HO: On my way to a meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists in 2002, I met Kevin Hand, a graduate student who was going to talk there about his outreach work in Africa. He told me I had to get involved. We ended up going all over Africa. I saw what the conditions were like, how brilliant the students were. I was amazed to find the image the media paints is not what Africa is. There is so much education. The problem is not that people don’t have talent, it’s that they’re broke.

And while many positive things are being done, they can fall short of being effective. For example, funding agencies now enforce an open data policy to democratize astronomy. So the data is “free” but the knowledge of how to process it remains proprietary.

LE: How will the One Telescope Project be different?
HO: We’re not using traditional funding channels. We’re going to crowdsource fund these telescopes. Then we’re going to open-source the knowledge needed to complete the science. Last, we’re going to combine everyone into a single intellectual community. I guarantee someday soon we’ll have a deluge of scientific authors from the developing world like we’ve never seen before.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.