image from http://www.cappadociaelglobo.com/3-dias-tour-de-capadocia-y-pamukkale.html
On the week of September 18, Isaac Nape, Nkosi Bhebe and I set out on a journey that felt a little like pioneering into the unknown with the goal of following physics wherever it might lead.
In this case it was to the less well-visited country of Iran in view of attending the recent “International Workshop on Structured Light and Matter: Concept and Applications” that took place there form the 17th -23rd September 2016 in Zanjan, Iran – a quaint, quieter town 5 hours’ drive from the capital of Tehran. Jointly organised by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences (IASBS) and the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), it was held at the IASBS campus, one of the more modern universities.
The fore-warned strict rules regarding ladies attire, staunch Islamic religious standing and governmental isolation accompanied us as we entered this journey. Subsequently, I dawned the required hijab, double checked nothing ‘scandalous’ was showing and stepped off the safe plane and into the unknown with my fellow visitors-in-arms.Met by friendly students from the university awaiting our arrival and directed to a well-informed (albeit not English-speaking) taxi-driver, we were in good hands and these ginger expectations were soon to abate as we became immersed in the culture. Humorously, as soon as we arrived we were met with some misconceptions of their own that were, almost without fail, to be repeated throughout the trip as they could not believe Caucasians lived in Africa too! Utter surprise was exclaimed at my South African residency and the many questions searching for an explanation would begin.
Confronted by the language difference (English is optional and Persian a must!), we felt the effects of being in a different country while nervously watching our Persian-speaking taxi driver navigate the traffic and wondering how there were no accidents!
There was nothing to fear though as they followed the Persian instructions handed to them on where to go and we comfortingly kept the emergency telephone number printed on our translated copy. Needless to say, the drivers seemed to have the art of weaving and dodging through traffic down and delivered us, after a good 5 hours of skilled navigation, safely to the university with a pre-arranged stop for refreshment and stretching.
The arid nature of the region we were visiting was apparent along the drive, but within it was a different kind of beauty where rolling hills, wide open spaces and beautifully designed mosques kept attention.
Upon arriving at the university in Zanjan, there was a happy contrast of lush, tall green trees lining the entrance, carpets of grass and arrays of brightly coloured flowers flourishing all over the campus. We were later told that the university founder, a pioneer in the development of basic science research in Iran, has a great love of flowers and so created the beautiful gardens to inspire the students of the university.
The next morning we woke bright and early for the first day of the workshop, starting the series of exciting lectures on singularities, light phenomena, how to describe them, structuring light and how to utilize the phenomena in different applications. We were privileged throughout the workshop to have opportunities to meet and learn from speakers such as Sir Micheal Berry, Lorenzo Marucci, Ebrahim Karimi and Andrew Forbes which populate many of the publications crucial to these fields and I must confess leaving the workshop a little star-struck at the end!
The day ended off wonderfully as a visit to a traditional Iranian restaurant was planned for the first evening. The cultural warmth quickly became apparent with the eagerness to show us – their guests as they put it – the local culture; so the first adventure began and all the workshop delegates climbed into a big bus and were transported into the town with popular Iranian songs filling the air from the taxi speakers, exciting much clapping and dancing from the local participants. Most of the restaurant had been booked up to accommodate us and we were introduced to the traditional way of eating out with beautifully designed alcoves lining the walls and distinctly Persian carpets and cushions padding these eating areas.
Accordingly, we removed our shoes and edged into the eating areas, happily awaiting the experience of trying traditional Iranian food. Most of it we could not identify and were told it was mainly different mixtures of beans and eggplant. What we could identify where some salad components and delicious chicken and beef sosaties. The rest, I’m afraid, will forever remain a mystery. The experience was halved between really delicious foods and – perhaps would be best described as – an interesting emprise in the culinary sector.
The festivities were accompanied by a band playing traditional instruments, serenading the different groups during the meal and a session of singing and dancing broke out afterwards amongst the locals.
Tuesday yielded a break from the workshop with a day trip to the ancient Takht-e Soleyman (“The Throne of Solomon”) ruins! Apparently, a religious sanctuary built by the Sasanian rulers between the 3rd and 7th century A.D., it is set in a volcanic mountainous region and boasts a strong influence of Islamic architecture. Listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO, it promised to be quite an adventure (see http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1077 for info). Armed with sunscreen, cameras and an appropriate amount of tourist enthusiasm, we all boarded a bus again and set off in the early hours of the morning. Being grateful for curtains on the windows we braved the 3-hour drive in the heat and arrived mid-day, beginning the exploration in this history-rich place.
A main attraction of the ruins was a thermal lake, fed by natural springs and subsequently kept at 21 degrees all year round. We watched longingly as it shimmered in the heat, however, it is deemed a sacred lake by the locals, rumored to be where monsters were imprisoned by King Solomon. Apparently anyone who enters shall never return and yes, of course, there was also talk of a buried treasure hidden within its dangerous, mysterious depths. Alas, no swimming was allowed and we could but look on at the stunning view amidst the arid surroundings – no wonder they built a sanctuary there in ancient times!
The surrounding structures became quite engrossing once one started walking around, almost as if it was beckoning one to investigate every possible corner, all imprinted with the mysteries and secrets of a past civilization. Many of the structures were well intact and you could make out the halls, arches, protective walls and many of the different rooms of this ancient treasure of history.
Another evening, close to the end of the trip, we went gallivanting off to a traditional market close by to experience more of the local colour and undertake the noble pursuit for souvenirs. Our difference in ethnicity made us a bit of an attraction, receiving many curious glances, stares and photo requests, but alas, there was no fear as Habib, a PhD student who was graciously showing us around, played translator and guide; introducing us to many of their customs and traditional drinks – one of which we chanced a try – a neon colored liquid with little fun, squishy, round seeds floating around like a bubble party: utterly delicious!
The rest of our stay in Iran went by quickly as we enjoyed the different culture, learned more about the fascinating physics of structured light, met many people, enjoyed interesting discussions about this phenomena and made new friends.
The people, experiences, food and places will linger in our memories with a warm glow and when it was time to leave, we looked back at this country with its wonderful people, decided the visit was too short and hope to return again soon!
Hend and I participated in workshop hosted by our Chapter our advisor, Melanie McLaren, where teachers from various countries were brought together around the issue of teaching optics. More than ten African countries were represented at the workshop. There was a number of distinguished speakers from within and outside the continent: Prof. Enrique Galvez (Colgate University, USA), Judith Donnelly (PBL Projects, USA), Prof. Mourad Zghal (Carthage university, Tunisia), Prof. Patricia Forbes (University of Pretoria, South Africa), Dr. Angela Dudley and Dr Darryl Naidoo (Council for scientific and industrial research, South Africa). The workshop went on for 5 days and was held at Mangwa Valley Lodge, a beautiful Game lodge, surrounded by wild life. The speakers touched on a variety of topics: spectroscopy, laser design, optical communication and applications of quantum mechanics with single photons. During the practical sessions, the audience was introduced to problem based learning with Judith, and more hands-on work on Patricia’s low cost SpecUP kit, Darryl’s Nitrogen laser, Mourad’s wavelength-division multiplexing kit and Enrique’s quantum eraser. At the end of the workshop, each participant with optics kits to take it to their home institution.
On August 09th, a team from the School of Physics set out on a journey to celebrate the National Science Week with high-school learners from Venda in Limpopo, a six-hour trip away from Braamfontein. We were booked at Vhafamadi bed-and-breakfast in Thohoyandou, where we enjoyed a good night sleep before the long first day of our outreach trip.
The Wednesday started with a good breakfast and a few selfies to light-up the morning, before heading off to the Mukula High school, half an hour away from the hotel. Upon arrival, we were greeted at the entrance of the school by a bright hot sunshine and the Chief of the area, Mr Takalani Rudzani, who led us inside, where we met the school Principal and other member of staff for a brief introduction and discussion about the program of the day.
We proceeded to the courtyard to get ourselves set up. Meanwhile, some of the learners present in the yard had started the preparations for the ceremony that was to be held to kick-start the Science week. It wasn’t long before we caught the attention of the students congregating into small groups, observing us and probably wondering what was in the boxes we were off-loading from the car. They were certainly curious about the black telescope under the centre of the tent, but too shy to approach any of us to ask about it. All they needed was a little push, and it was exactly what we gave them. We quickly excited their inner pyromaniac self by using focussed sunlight to burn a piece of paper and explode balloons, just a taste of what we had in store for the day. Two brave souls, then five, then ten, the group around us grew in an instant. From science experiment, we quickly digressed and the morning turned into a photoshoot and we were more than happy to oblige; and why not? They were obviously bored with the long wait and we all had, from the looks of things, a good couple of hours to burn. The girls were clear the stars of the show; against their superior social skills were outclassed and relegated to the role of photographer. We took advantage of the moment to thank our main sponsor, the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP), with a beautiful aerial shot. It took some effort but were able to get the student to crouch and arrange themselves to form the SAIP initials. This would have gone much easier had we been well verse in the dialect of the area. The result was definitely worth it. Everyone was pumped up and ready for the introductory ceremony that was about to start. We had naively all expected this would have been a quick matter and that we would soon get on with the demonstrations. We were clearly mistaken. From the students directing the ceremony for the day, Chief, Pastor, to the Circuit Manager, everyone seemingly had a lengthy speech prepared. This tedious exercise may have, at first, seemed pointless, until one puts the events in context. The National Science Week was not simply an annual gathering; it was much more: a moment to remind the students of the approaching exam deadline, an opportunity to motivate each other, and more importantly, the perfect time to show them that a career in science is a fulfilling and rewarding. As their predecessors on the tortuous path that is life, we had a major part to play in realising some of these ideals behind the National Science Week. I confess feeling shocked when, in a motivational speech, one student in the entirety of the five schools that had assembled, raised his hand when I asked: “Who amongst you wants to be a scientist”. In private discussion later, I was relieved to know that there were more students interested in science, too shy to raise their hands. Though many of them had a penchant for the job of politicians: “They make a lot of money” some of the students told us; a natural feeling from their daily realities. Nevertheless, it was a sign that our role here was crucial. Two hours later, when the litany of speeches was over, we had enough time to grab some lunch and begin with the demonstrations: bending light with lenses onto balloons, focussing the sunlight with a parabolic mirror, optical communication using light, mechanical-to-electrical energy conversion, bending and polarising microwaves, scanning the sky through a telescope. After two hours of experiments and chat with the students, it was time to leave, thoroughly exhausted by the heat and the scientific explanations.
Thursday 10th August, we were back to Mukula high school, this time with a different group of five schools from the circuit to entertain and impress. I was determined to show off my new learned Venda words: I swapped the English “Hello” for the Venda “Ndaa”, pleasantly shocking my interlocutors, who lost me completely with unexpected answers. We had our round of photos before the litany of speeches (once again). Today was a bit different; we were joined by a special guest in the person of Dr Eric Musekene, the leader of a local NGO who arranged, together with the schools and Chief, our visit in Limpopo. Dr Musekene had helped arranging the same event the year before. It went well enough that we were asked to come again this year. Furthermore, the team of student DJs was more prepared – the microphone and electronic instruments had been out of service the day before. After the morning ceremony, we skipped lunch and carried on directly with the two-hour long demos. This time, we knew what the learners wanted. Though they had shown a preference for the exploding balloons, they were even more interesting in getting those balloons for themselves. This group was no different; this made it easier to entice them into paying attention. This group was more open than the previous one to personal questions: “How long does it take you to become a doctor?”, “why did you chose science?”, “what do I need to do to study at Wits?”, “is it difficult?”… . By the early afternoon we were done and ready to pack our equipment before heading back to the hotel for a power nap; we had a stargazing session planned for the evening. By six in the evening we were back to the school, where a sparse crowd of students and other kids in the area were waiting. The sky was dark enough that we could get set straight away, our astronomy crew leading the proceedings. Luckily, Venus had not yet disappeared over the horizon behind the school building. Though I admit we could not see much details with our telescope. Nevertheless, for a first time, it was amazing. After Venus had left the party, we settled for our closest galactic neighbour: the moon. Seeing the craters so close and in such high definition was a first for all the kids present. “Waaaaouh!” was the common interjection when placing one eye on the eyepiece. One after the other, they all wanted to witness this sorcery that allowed them to see so far away. Saturn on the other hand was trickier to catch with the eye; we had to almost continuously adjust the telescope to catch a glimpse of its shiny rings. For the lucky ones who did, it was definitely a sight they will always remember. Mars on the other hand was not as interesting as movies like the Martian portray it; in Mars’s defence, we just had our telescope to blame for it. The rest of the evening was dedicated to one more photoshoot, our last one in Mukula before heading to Vhaluvhu High School the day after, a little over a hundred kilometres away from Mukula High School. The goodbye were quite emotional; we received many thanks from the locals and the Chief. We hope to see once more.
Half past six in the morning, we left Vhafamadi bed-and-breakfast for our two and a half-hour journey. In the last thirty minutes of the trip, we had to take a dirt road to get to the school – our rental car did not handle it so well and we lost one of the wheel caps. Finally we had arrived: Vhaluvhu High School. An enthusiastic group of students had converged to greet us – It was quite refreshing I must say. We proceeded with unpacking our equipment and setting up in the school yard. Meanwhile, the crowd of students was growing. Ten of the neighbouring schools had been invited to attend, though only seven could make it. This was to be expected; many of the students had to walk a significant distance to get here. The lack of local transportation was evident on our way here. We were grateful that many could make the time and effort to come. This time, the introductory ceremony was much shorter. We divided the students into groups, scattered to the various stations across the yard. The show went on for about an hour and a half before the learners began to scatter. Some of them stayed behind with some questions about Wits and optics in general. I met two girls that had told me they wanted to do nursing, and one particularly curious boy that was interested in software engineering. Having experience the environment, it was admirable that there were here, and in the school we had visited previously, students with the passion to do great in life despite their less than ideal conditions of learning. It is that passion that will drive the development of South Africa for the years to come. I hope they keep faithful to their ambitions. Soon after noon, we were on our way. We made a quick stop in the family house of one of our companions: a brick house in the making, overlooking a vast plain of dry peaceful land.A reminder of the work that is still to be done to guarantee that every child in the country has access to quality education and enjoy the many opportunities South Africa has to offer. This marked the end of our journey and we were on our way. As they say in Venda: “Ndi a livhuwa”. See you all soon.
On the 22nd of July 2016, we hosted our OSA and SPIE student chapter launch at the University of Witwatersrand, Physics building on West campus. We invited Honours students from the School of Physics, Structured Light lab students along with other students from different research groups that have research focus areas related to optics and photonics and were interested in joining our student chapter. We held the occasion in a traditional South African style, with braai boerewors and bread rolls. Everyone helped themselves to some snacks and drinks. To top it off, the day ended with some socialising, scientific discourse and endless laughter: signs of a successful launch and the beginning of a wonderful journey as a student chapter.
Mitchell, Ronnie and Bienvenu preparing to braai the meat.
Some moments caught on camera.
I was fortunate to attend the prestigious OSAF Siegman School on Lasers hosted by ICFO in Barcelona, Spain two weeks ago. Besides a week packed with lectures on various laser-related topics, the school provided a great opportunity to network with international postgraduate students in similar fields to my own. I was also able to meet some of the OSA Foundation staff and we discussed our newly founded student chapter at the university and possibilities for the future! The labs at ICFO were an eye opener: the variety of experiments, the sheer number of labs and the processes and equipment were amazing! I hope that one day we have similar facilities in South Africa 🙂
The entire group of students and academics who presented the lectures.
Myself and some new (and old) friends on a bus ride. From left to right: Me, Tori (USA), James (USA), Sandhra (Estonia), Daniel (South Africa: CSIR)
If you are interested in joining our new student chapter then please see the invite below: