“When I was growing up in the dark villages the only beautiful things were the surrounding nature and the sky.
As a young herdboy looking after goats and cattle I fell in love with nature and started asking questions that were considered taboo.”
From goat herder to physicist
As a young herdboy, Prof Azwinndini Muronga spent most of his time looking after goats and cattle in his rural village in Limpopo. It is in these fields that he first fell in love with nature and became curious about it. This is what led him to pursue a career in science. Years later he is still as intrigued by nature as he was when he was a boy. Prof Muronga spoke to LMS about his experience as a theoretical physicist.
- Could you please tell the LMS readers a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in the rural village of Lwamondo, Vhembe District in Limpopo. My first two classes were under trees in Belemu Primary School. I did my grades 8 – 10 at Makakavhale Secondary School. Thereafter, I completed grades 11 – 12 at Mbilwi Secondary School. I started my tertiary education at the University of Venda where I obtained my bachelor of science (BSc) degree in mathematics and physics. I also obtained my University Education Diploma in mathematics and science at this institute and my BSc (Honours) in physics at the University of Cape Town (UCT). I completed my masters of science (MSc) in physics at UCT, which was awarded with distinction. Subsequently, I went to study towards my doctor of philosophy in physics at the University of Minnesota (US). I did my postdoctoral training at the University of Frankfurt and at GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Germany. I joined UCT in 2005 as a senior lecturer until September 2010. Since October 2010 I have been an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). I am also currently the Director of the UJ Soweto Science Centre.
- What are you currently working on?
I am a theoretical physicist working on a field that lies at the intersection of nuclear physics, particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology. My research field lies in the intersection of nuclear physics, particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology. At the moment I am studying the nature and properties of hot and dense matter in heavy ion collisions and in astrophysics. The study focuses on the properties of a new state of matter, Quark Gluon Plasma (QGP), which existed just for a microsecond at the beginning of the universe after the Big Bang and might also exist in the deep interior of neutron stars. Scientists are now able to recreate this new state of matter in the terrestrial laboratories such as the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider experiments in Brookhaven National Laboratory, New York and the Large Hadron Collider experiments at the European Organization for Nuclear Research known as CERN (Switzerland). Studying the properties of QGP by investigating its transport properties and the equation of state will help us to understand how our universe begins, how it evolves, where is it going and how it will end.
- What do you enjoy most about this area of research?
I really enjoy learning new things on a daily basis. In particular, discovering new theories that I know no one has ever seen before.
- How did you first become involved in the field of science and research?
Having a high school principal who had a MSc in theoretical physics inspired me. At the various universities I enjoyed theoretical physics courses. When I was growing up in the dark villages the only beautiful things were the surrounding nature and the sky. Then I would be fascinated and start to ask myself questions about the nature and the heavens. Watching my mom make home-brewed beer made me curious about the processes involved. As a young herdboy looking after goats and cattle I fell in love with nature and started asking questions that were considered taboo.
- What are your views of research and innovation in SA?
Since the dawn of democracy in SA, the period of isolation ended. A new Ministry of Science and Technology was established. The National Science and Technology Forum was established. A new science academy was formed. There has been a rapid evolution of a new and dynamic science and technology system. The new priority has been on strategic high-level human capacity development. This then signalled the coming of big science in SA. The future of physics also looks bright. With massive increase in funding, new projects, and growth brings a new era of optimism. The South African Institute of Physics (SAIP) now has an established executive office, which brings professional management in the physics community. With SA hosting the majority of Square Kilometer Array (SKA) infrastructure, astronomy is one of the best funded sections of the physics research.
At around 100 times more sensitive than any comparable existing facility, the SKA giant radio telescope will be the most powerful ever built. It consists of about 3 000 parabolic antennae with a total collecting area of around 100ha, or a square kilometer, SKA will construct images of the universe from radio waves. SA and Australia are co-hosting this key scientific facility, with Africa hosting two thirds of the receiver components.
The physics community is now in a much better position to flourish with the help of the South African National CyberInfrastructure in the form of the Centre for High-Performance Computing (HPC). It is a premier HPC site in the country and provides more resources than any given site managed by Meraka. It is designed and managed to tackle exceedingly large problems, perhaps requiring specialised hardware. It is used on a project basis, through major ‘flagship’ projects and collaborative ‘consortium’ projects. South African National Research Network is also a blessing to the physics community.
The establishment of the National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NITheP) is a boost to the physics community in SA because theoretical physics is a discipline that provides conceptual framework for the natural sciences. NITheP is a user facility that connects SA and the rest of the continent with the international physics community through excellence in research and training.
There is massive funding in physics user facilities such as iThemba Labs, Astronomy facilities, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South African National Space Agency, South African Nuclear Energy Corporation SOC Limited, NITheP, SA-CERN, and in niche areas such as biophysics, material science, nanotechnology, energy, and many more. So the future is bright for physics in SA.
- What is it like to be a female/male in this industry? Do you believe that the government and industry are doing enough to encourage females to pursue these careers?
The Department of Science and Technology has various platforms for encouraging women to take up science and engineering careers.
- Do you have any future plans that you would like to share with the LMS readers?
My future plans are to continue teaching and doing research while engaging on science outreach programmes.
- Any last words of wisdom for the scientists, researchers and innovators out there?
I would like to call upon all scientists, researchers and innovators to dedicate at least 67 minutes/year on popularising their work to the youth in South Africa. This is an investment in our future scientists, researchers and innovators.
List of your achievements
The 2003 Aneesur Rahman Prize
The 2013 Distinguished Leadership Award for Internationals
The 2013/2014 NSTF-BHP Billiton Award
Role model: My high school principal
Favourite animal: Meerkat
Favourite Book: Mabalanganye
Favourite movie: Gods must be crazy