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South Africa celebrates astrophysicist in first black hole image team

Growing up in South Africa’s Free State where he had a good view of the Milky Way, inspired his dreams to become an astronaut

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(SA Astrophysicist Prof Roger Deane): Professor Roger Deane is an Astrophysicist from the Department of Physics at the University of Pretoria. He is pictured here with a theorised simulation of a black hole shadow image. (Background photo credit: T. Bronzwaer, J. Davelaar, M. Moscibrodzka, H. Falcke/BlackHoleCam

South Africa is celebrating its astrophysicist, Professor Roger Deane, who was part of the international team of scientists that captured the first photograph of a black hole. The image was unveiled simultaneously in six press conferences across the globe on Wednesday.

The ground-breaking image was created by a large scale international research collaboration, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The EHT is comprised of a network of 10 radio telescopes scattered across the globe, functioning as a single receiver. As well as the more than 200 scientists from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America who collect and analyse huge amounts of data from it.

This includes Prof. Deane from the Department of Physics at the University of Pretoria, as well as his post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Iniyan Natarajan, from the Department of Physics and Electronics at Rhodes University. Their contribution was to build a highly realistic simulation of this “earth-sized” instrument that helped astronomers better understand what the real black hole ought to look like.

“As with any major physics experiment, one needs to understand the effects that the instrument itself may have on the data.

“In the case of the EHT, we built a simulation package that physically modelled a number of non-desirable effects that prevent one from seeing any sort of black hole shadow feature,” Deane said.

M-87 Black hole

The capture of this image marks a major scientific achievement as it provides actual confirmation of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

Black holes are extremely compressed cosmic objects, containing enormous amounts of mass within a tiny space. Their presence affects their surroundings in extreme ways, by warping spacetime and super-heating any material falling into it. Nothing emerges from a black hole; not even light.

(First Photo of Black Hole Graphic): The first photograph of a black hole located in the M87 galaxy in the Virgo constellation, 50 billion lights years from Earth. SOPHIE RAMIS, SABRINA BLANCHARD, JONATHAN WALTER / AFP

The captured image reveals the black hole at the centre of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the constellation of Virgo. This black hole is located 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5-billion times larger than our sun.

Deane’s research group will now focus on expanding their simulations.

Africans in space research

“I’m just proud and honoured to play my small part in this amazing international team”, said Deane, who attended the unveiling in Brussels.

He revealed that growing up in South Africa’s Free State where he had a good view of the Milky Way, inspired his dreams to become an astronaut.

Vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria, Professor Tawana Kupe, said of Deane, in a statement on the milestone achievement.

“This young scientist is an inspiration to scientists on the African continent. This discovery is a great example of what can be achieved if we work together across borders and disciplines.”

Deane and his research group are part of a wider cohort of scientists on the continent realising significant milestones in the areas of astronomy and computational intelligence. Their work is made possible with the critical support of various African government.

Last year South Africa launched MeerKAT, a 64-dish radio telescope system 50 times more powerful than any other on earth. MeerKAT was built as part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a multi-billion dollar international project to create the world’s largest radio telescope.

South African deputy President David Mabuza (2nd R) officially inaugurates one of a 64-dish radio telescope system during an official unveiling ceremony on July 13, 2018 in Carnarvon. – South Africa on July 13 unveiled the planet’s super radio telescope which will be at least 50 times more powerful than any telescope on earth. Deputy President on July 13, formally unveiled the 64-dish radio telescope array in the remote and arid Karoo region of South Africa that offers prime conditions for astronomers. Named the MeerKAT, the 64 receptors are set to be integrated into a multi-nation Square Kilometre Array (SKA). (Photo by MUJAHID SAFODIEN / AFP)

Co-located primarily in South Africa and Australia, the SKA will be a collection of hundreds of thousands of radio antennas with a combined collecting area equivalent to approximately one million square metres, or one square kilometre.

The project is one of the largest scientific endeavours in history and will be more than 10 times more sensitive and much faster at surveying galaxies than any current radio telescope.

The next African phase of the SKA, the African Millimetre Telescope (AMT), to be located in Namibia is now in the pipeline.


Somalia’s floating restaurant and beach provide fun refuge

We considered that pirates could hijack it, and use it to attack cargo ships -restaurant owner

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Somalia's floating restaurant and beach provide refuge
The luxury La Lanterna Bar restaurant boat, sails in the Indian Ocean near Lido beach in Mogadishu, Somalia. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Few restaurateurs consider the threat of piracy in their plans but Abdulkadir Mohamed did so for his La Lanterna floating restaurant now moored off Mogadishu’s popular Lido beach.

“We considered that pirates could hijack it, and use it to attack cargo ships,” he said on the top of the double-deck boat as it bounced on the warm waters of the Indian Ocean a short distance from the Somali capital’s coastline.

“We made it slow,” he explained, so pirates would not see it as a prize vessel to seize and use in any of their attacks.

Pirates were once the scourge of the region, chasing oil tankers and other ships and demanding ransoms for those they captured. But as Somalia has regained a semblance of stability after almost three decades of conflict and chaos, piracy has faded, even if sporadic bombings still strike the capital.

A modicum of calm means Somalis are seeking out more leisure activities outside their homes, and the Lido beach, with its bleach white sand, is drawing the crowds.

Somalia's floating restaurant and beach provide refuge
Young boy walks along the seashore on the Lido beach in Mogadishu, Somalia.

With extra security and checkpoints to protect the 2.5 km (1.5 mile) stretch of sand from possible Islamist attacks, the beach offers a place to escape from the battle-scarred capital.

“Sitting on Lido Beach, having tea or coffee in the evening, you can see different colors and feel sometimes that you are in another world,” said Omar Abule, the manager of travel agent Visit Mogadishu, describing the cobalt waters and orange sunsets.

Families plunge into the water – the women from this religiously conservative country still wear their headscarves and loose garments as they sit or swim in the sea.

Visitors feeling more adventurous can don a life jacket and take a small launch to La Lanterna as it bobs near the beach. After clambering aboard, they can have a coffee or cold drink and order a snack, an opportunity to forget challenges ashore.

“I am happy to get on board such a boat,” said Samira Mohammed on La Lanterna. “Coming to Lido beach gives you big hope.”

Abdifitah Mohamed Siyad, director of tourism and investment in Mogadishu’s local government, said the city had been ruined by wars and most people had “stories of grief”.

“The remedy for the people is to create happiness for them, create an environment for tourism, a time for them to tour, a time for them to chat and forget the past,” he said.

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Botswana suspends elephant hunting ban

Landlocked Botswana has the largest elephant population in Africa, with more than 135,000 roaming freely

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Botswana suspends elephant hunting ban
African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana), around a water hole, Nxai pan national park, Bostwana. Biosphoto / Sylvain Cordier

Botswana on Wednesday lifted its ban on elephant hunting, saying the population had increased and farmers’ livelihoods were being impacted, in a move set to trigger outrage from conservationists.

A prohibition on elephant hunting was introduced in the country in 2014 by then-president Ian Khama, a keen environmentalist.

But lawmakers from the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) have been lobbying to overturn the ban, saying numbers have become unmanageably large in some areas.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi took over from Khama last year and a public review began five months later, with reports suggesting growing political friction between Masisi and his predecessor.

“Botswana has taken a decision to lift the hunting suspension,” the environment ministry said in a statement.

It said a cabinet committee review that found that “the number and high levels of human-elephant conflict and the consequent impact on livelihoods was increasing”.

“The general consensus from those consulted was that the hunting ban should be lifted,” it added, vowing that hunting would be re-started “in an orderly and ethical manner”.

Landlocked Botswana has the largest elephant population in Africa, with more than 135,000 roaming freely in its unfenced parks and wide open spaces.

Some experts say the number of elephants in the country, renowned as a luxury safari destination, has almost tripled over the last 30 years, and that the population could now be over 160,000.

Crops destroyed –

Farmers struggle to keep elephants out of their fields where they eat crops and can kill people.

Lifting the hunting ban could be a popular move with rural voters ahead of an election due in October.

Many of Botswana’s elephants roam across borders into Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

All four countries have called for a global ban on elephant ivory trade to be relaxed due to the growing number of the animals in some regions.

“We cannot continue to be spectators while others debate and take decisions about our elephants,” Masisi told a meeting of the countries’ presidents this month in Botswana.

“Conflict between elephants and people is on the rise as the demand for land for agriculture and settlements is growing,” he said.

While elephant numbers have increased in some areas, over the past decade, the population of elephants across Africa has fallen by about 111,000 to 415,000, largely due to poaching for ivory, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Zimbabwe said this month it had sold nearly 100 elephants to China and Dubai for a total price of $2.7 million over six years due to overpopulation.

Botswana last year rejected claims by a leading conservation charity that there had been a surge of elephant poaching.

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Kenyan High Court due to pass rule on homosexuality

Activists believe Kenya has a chance to blaze a trail in Africa.

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Kenyan High Court due to pass rule on homosexuality | News Central TV
Kenyan court. (File photo)

Kenya’s High Court is on Friday expected to deliver a long-awaited ruling on whether to scrap colonial-era laws which criminalise homosexuality in the country.

However, the LGBT community fears yet another postponement. In February, the three-judge bench pushed back its decision, citing a heavy workload, prompting dismay from a persecuted community who have fought for years to be accepted.

“There are a lot of mixed emotions around this because people are just wary of the fact that it could be postponed yet again,” Brian Macharia of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), one of the petitioners, told AFP.

“Everyone is just hopeful and we recognise that things could go either way.”

Gay rights organisations are asking the court to scrap two sections of the penal code that criminalises homosexuality.

One section states that anyone who has “carnal knowledge… against the order of nature” can be imprisoned for 14 years. Another provides for a five-year jail term for “indecent practices between males”.

Activists believe Kenya has a chance to blaze a trail in Africa where homophobia is virulent in many communities, with similar laws in over half the countries on the continent.

While convictions under the decades-old laws are rare, gay activists say the legislation is unconstitutional and fuels homophobia.

The National Gay And Lesbian Human Rights Commission says it dealt with 15 prosecutions under the laws in 2018, with no convictions recorded.

‘Unimaginable harm’ –

The petitioners argue that under Kenya’s 2010 constitution, every person is said to be equal before the law.

However, members of the LGBT community are blackmailed, evicted, fired, expelled from school, or assaulted over their sexual orientation, but are unable to access justice without effectively confessing to a crime.

“LGBTQ people in Kenya for years and years have faced and suffered violence and harm in unimaginable ways, but justice has not been afforded to them because of the penal code,” said Macharia.

Activists are optimistic of an eventual ruling in their favour, given recent decisions by the court.

In March, the High Court banned forced anal testing of men suspected of being gay.

And in September, a court ruled that “Rafiki” (“Friend”), a film about a lesbian love affair which was the first Kenyan movie to be shown at the Cannes film festival, could be screened domestically for seven days after its initial banning.

Macharia said Kenya’s powerful churches had been holding special events in the leadup to the ruling to fight what they term “the LGBT agenda”.

“The church is spreading a lot of hatred, a lot of misinformation,” he said.

The petition is being fought by an association of Catholics, Protestants and evangelicals.

Twenty-eight out of 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have laws penalising same-sex relationships, according to Neela Ghoshal, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) specialist in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.

The death penalty is on the books, under Islamic sharia law, in Mauritania, Sudan and northern Nigeria, although there have been no known executions in recent times. In southern Somalia, gay men are believed to have been put to death in territory ruled by the Al-Shabaab jihadist group.

Angola, Mozambique and Seychelles have scrapped anti-gay laws in recent years.

On the other hand, Chad and Uganda have introduced or toughened legislation.

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