28Mar2016

Gazing At The Stars Pays Off For Kevin

Gazing at the stars pays off for KZN man

Kevin Govender with his wife Carolina and sons Xavier and Cyprian. He has been awarded the Edinburgh Medal.

KwaZulu-Natal’s Kevin Govender, 38, took the saying “reach for the stars” seriously, at a young age . The astronomer, now based in Cape Town, will be the first South African to receive the prestigious Edinburgh Medal on Wednesday.

The medal is given each year to men and women of science and technology whose professional achievements are judged to have made a significant contribution to the understanding and well-being of humanity.

It will be jointly awarded to Govender and the International Astronomical Union at the 2016 Edinburgh International Science Festival, in the UK. Exploring from a boy growing up on a farm in Ndwedwe on the KZN north coast, Govender has always believed some day he was destined to explore the universe.

The 2016 Edinburgh Medal will be jointly awarded to Kevin Govender from IAU’s Office of Astronomy for Development and the International Astronomical Union

Today, he is the director of the union’s office of astronomy for development based at the SA Astronomical Observatory. “I grew up on a small sugar cane farm and the freedom we had as kids to explore was invaluable. Having a teacher for a mother and mechanic for a father meant I had a balance between academics and being practical. This combination probably contributed to my interest in science.

“As a child we did not look at the stars as often as we could or should have because of superstitions that were rife in our communities. The one I remember most clearly was that if you counted stars, you would get warts,” he said. His studies were in physics and only some astronomy. He holds a BSc honours degree in physics from UKZN and an executive management development programme from Stellenbosch University Business School.

Govender’s biggest influences, apart from his parents, were his older brother and teachers, and he was greatly influenced by his mentors. “My daily activities mainly involve sitting in front of a computer. My work entails co-ordinating a global network of projects, partners and volunteers – so most work is online.

“I’m more focused on the ground and work with the people who look at the stars. I’ve travelled to many parts of the world and have been privileged to look at the stars from many different angles and through many different perspectives. My particularly favourite angle is the one in which we look at how the stars make a difference to people’s lives,” said Govender.

from  left: Bonaventure Okere (Regional Coordinator for the West African Regional Office of Astronomy for Development, Nigeria), Kevin Govender (Director of the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development, South Africa), Zaka K. Zacharie (Country Coordinator for Ivory Coast), Fidelix Opara (Director of the Centre for Basic Space Science in Nigeria), Kam Sie Zacharie (Country Coordinator for Burkina Faso), Eric Aggrey (Country Coordinator for Ghana), Patrice Okouma (Country Coordinator for Gabon) and Piero Benvenuti joining by video in the background (IAU General Secretary). credits: IAU/ Dele from the Centre for Basic Space Science, Nigeria

The West African Regional Office of Astronomy for Development (WA-ROAD) is hosted at the Center for Basic Space Sciences (CBSS), National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) in Nigeria. Kevin is second from left.

Despite the demands of his work, he still managed to marry a woman whom he regards to be as brilliant as him – Carolina Odman, a Swiss-trained engineer turned astrophysicist. They have two children.

“The highlight in my life and career has been our two little boys – by far the greatest achievement either me or Carolina have achieved.” Having studied the universe extensively, Govender has had the opportunity to see the most amazing things through a variety of telescopes. “If I were to choose the best, it would be the moon. Looking at the craters of the moon through a very modest telescope or set of binoculars can be hugely impressive – I’ve always loved it.

“However, I must admit that the most enjoyable, inspiring, special thing to look at is a dark Sutherland/Northern Cape sky on a moonless winter night with the naked eye. Anyone who has not experienced that should make their way out of light-polluted cities and experience the feeling of flying in space – as we are doing on this spaceship called Earth.” Govender has his own theories too. He believes that maybe aliens do exist and just because scientists haven’t found any yet, it doesn’t mean they are not out there.

“In what form we find aliens and how we reach them will be an interesting journey – but it’s a big universe out there and statistically there just has to be more life in the universe than just on planet Earth,” he said,

The MeerKAT telescope in South Africa, seen here in an artist’s impression, will be a prototype for the vast Square Kilometre Array.

Likewise, with the existence of God. “I wouldn’t say I, or anyone else, had studied the universe extensively, it’s way too huge. As such our limited view of the universe leaves plenty of room for God beyond our current understanding. Analogous to aliens, if we haven’t specifically found something doesn’t prove that it’s not out there,” he said,

Proud of his achievements and being awarded the Edinburgh medal, Govender said the award placed South Africa in a particularly important position on the world stage of science for development. “If we are able to lead in this incredibly important field then we can (and do) lead in other areas too.”

Govender would now like to see the model that South Africa is developing around astronomy be fine tuned, then adopted by other sciences for development. He would also like to see the enhancement that will ensure that there is significant societal benefit that arises from the knowledge and skills that are generated in a science community.

Govender has a message for other young aspiring scientists. “Work hard and be humble. Success will come with hard work but at the same time always accept that there are people who know more than you and who you can learn from.” nabeelah.shaikh@inl.co.za Source:  IOL

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