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Prof Brian Warner receives ASSAf gold medal

Prof Brian Warner, ASSA Gill Medalist and MNASSA editorial board member, has received a gold medal for science of benefit to the public at the second annual awards ceremony of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf).

"We're often asked if the country needs more astronomers. The answer is no," says the University of Cape Town astronomy professor cheerfully. "But we do need minds trained in research techniques in the physical sciences because those skills are applicable in industry and in other sciences in general."

"There are many spin-offs from astronomy," says Warner, one of just three distinguished professors in the UCT faculty of science. "Astronomy has driven the technology and the technology has found other important applications in security and health." He notes, for example, that "the infrared scanners used in hospitals to find tumours, which have a hotter temperature than the rest of the body. That came out of the technological development demanded by astronomy looking at infrared radiation from distant stars and galaxies."

"In training students in astronomy, I feel that I'm not producing more astronomers. I am training the minds of the new South Africa in research techniques."

Warner jokes about astronomy being a science with few obvious advantages for a developing country: "We're proud of that. We do not do any harm. Of course, we don't necessarily do any good either," he teased. "On the other hand it is the most expensive science in the world. If you look at the amount of money that's spent on the space business in the USA it is actually the highest cost, which shows how important it is to other people."

The second annual awards of the Academy of Science of South Africa seem to have come full circle. Warner was one of the nine founding fathers of the post-apartheid academy in 1996, who then excluded themselves from being members so that they couldn't be accused of nepotism. Now he has received the science-for-society gold medal – with one ounce of real gold – at a function at the University of Cape Town faculty of health sciences in Observatory.

ASSAf itself was formed to overcome the apartheid-era divides in the scientific community, when there were two science bodies for white scientists only, divided along linguistic lines into Afrikaans-speaking and English-speaking. It is now a member of the 90-nation group known as the Inter-Academy Panel.

(ASSAf press release)


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(c) ASSA 2003, 2004  • updated 2004 nov 02