Challenging Einstein

Professor Justin Jonas - Associate Director for Science and Engineering of South Africa’s SKA programme and Professor of Physics and Electronics at South Africa’s Rhodes University.

Professor Justin Jonas, the Chief Scientist behind Africa’s bid to put itself at the centre of discovery about the universe, is positive that the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will achieve its ambitions. It will shed light on how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, how black holes work, and what that mysterious dark energy - which makes up 70% of the universe and is driving its continuous expansion - really is. It may even detect intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

It’s fascinating stuff, but what most excites Prof Jonas is the chance to prove Albert Einstein wrong. “Frankly, it would be fantastic if Einstein’s theories about gravity were invalidated,” says Prof Jonas, Associate Director for Science and Engineering of South Africa’s SKA programme and Professor of the Physics and Electronics at South Africa’s Rhodes University.

“Any scientist would tell you it is a disappointment if a discovery proves an existing theory.”

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which details how massive objects affect space and time, is now almost a century old and could be disproved by SKA research into pulsars.

Scientists will test Einstein’s theory by examining how these spinning dead stars react in the proximity of black holes. Einstein would have been intrigued by SKA’s potential, just as he would have been impressed by the speed, energy and gravitational pull of 53- year old Prof Jonas, who has played a crucial part in establishing an African country with limited resources as a global leader in radio astronomy within a very short space in time.

Only a decade ago, Prof Jonas sent a tentative email to the International SKA Steering Committee asking whether South Africa could join in discussions on the project. The country was not only a late entry in the race to host the SKA (consultations on the project already started in 1993), but at that stage its only ambition was to be considered as a host site.

Prof Jonas, together with colleagues and students, explored the country looking for a suitable site, eventually settling on a desolate patch of land, 90km northwest of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, which has a very dry climate, with a small population and almost no radio frequency interference from cellular phones and broadcast transmitters.

The site was perfect, but Prof Jonas and his colleagues didn’t feel it was enough. For the bid to succeed, they needed to demonstrate that South Africa had technical capability in the field. They worked with government to develop a plan to grow radio astronomy in South Africa, and in record time Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7) was built.

While the radio telescope has already started to deliver images of a galaxy 14-million light years away, it is only a frontrunner for MeerKAT - the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere - which is currently being constructed.

To support these telescopes, human capital was needed. Hundreds of bursaries were made available and within a couple of years, the number of radio astronomers increased by a factor of ten, says Prof Jonas with great satisfaction.


Picture By Sophie Smith

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