National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Prof Roger Deane

For the digital upgrade of the Johannesburg Planetarium

Exploring the unknown and sharing what we find with others has always been a very human endeavour, says local astrophysics celebrity, Prof Roger Deane.

Deane was one of several scientists across the globe who in 2022 shared the very first image of the black hole at the centre of our galaxy, called Sagittarius A*. 

“I hosted a press conference in the planetarium … and we had a live stream synchronous with press conferences in Washington DC and in Munich, Germany,” he says.

“It was just incredible to feel the sense of history in the 62 years that the planetarium had been in operation,” says Deane, “but also this historic moment in sharing this first image of the Milky Way black hole with the community.”

He is of course referring to Johannesburg’s treasured Wits Planetarium, which is currently being transformed into a flagship science engagement facility, the Wits Anglo American Digital Dome. 

The revamp is one of Deane’s priorities as director of the Centre for Astrophysics at Wits, and will see new ways of immersing the public, especially youth, in space exploration. 

Deane is also the national Research Chair in Radio Astronomy. He sees his roles as a researcher and as a science communicator as “completely intertwined and overlapping”.

Astronomy is one of the oldest scientific disciplines when it comes to exploring the universe, he says, yet it relies on the latest technology in equipment, algorithms, data and artificial intelligence.

“So there is a bigger mission; it’s not just about astrophysics,” says Deane. “There’s been a very high level of strategic investment in astronomy in South Africa to build up high tech skills and to build up expertise within young people.”

This strategic capacity building in STEM fields that go far beyond astrophysics is a key reason why Deane communicates so well with the public, and so often.

Besides finding novel ways to excite the public about the potential of the Digital Dome, he’s shared science with society via hundreds of public lectures, national and international media interviews, and popular articles.

A critical measure of success for Deane will be how the public’s engagement with South African astrophysics research grows. “I think the Digital Dome is definitely an important step towards that, especially in strengthening the network of planetariums, and more broadly astrophysics engagement in the South African community.”

Professor Roger Deane won the Communication Award for contributing to outreach and creating awareness of science, engineering, technology and innovation by a team or individual over the last 5 years. — ScienceLink

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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