‘As a scientist, your main task is to identify a hitherto-unsolved problem, apply your skills set to solve the problem, and make an objective interpretation of the results. If an independent peer review shows your results are correct, you have discovered new knowledge. If not, you go back to the drawing board with an open mind, re-assess your methodology, get new skills if necessary, and tackle the problem again. How more exciting can it get than that!’

This clear explanation of scientific endeavour comes from Prof Amare Abebe, Research Director at the Centre for Space Research (CSR) at North-West University (NWU).

After completing his postgraduate training specialising in gravitation and cosmology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Prof Abebe joined the NWU as a postdoctoral research fellow in 2014. He has remained here ever since, where he is now a professor of physics and the director of the CSR. His research focuses on understanding the origin and evolution of the universe and the formation of large-scale structures, i.e. structures that contain more than individual galaxies.

‘I use alternative theories of gravitational physics and observational constraints from astronomical data. Part of this endeavour is to explain (away) dark matter and dark energy – two components of matter and energy that together account for nearly 95% of the total content of the universe despite being invisible. Hence these simply referred to as dark, but their existence is inferred through their gravitational and cosmological effects.’

He explains more about the work that he and his group are doing: ‘The standard cosmological model at the moment is anchored in Einstein’s General Relativity (GR) theory as the one that underlies gravitational physics. It assumes the present universe is predominantly filled with dark energy and dark matter. Most of the cosmology research my group (including my students and postdocs) does at the CSR involves exploring viable alternative gravitational models (i.e. beyond GR) . We do this by analysing their theoretical consistency in explaining the expansion of the universe and the formation of large-scale structure through perturbation theory. Recently, we have also started looking at the possibility of constraining some of these alternative theories using available astronomical data.’

Prof Abebe adds he is ‘working towards attracting postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows to join the CSR and conduct research on these and related cosmology topics.’

A lifelong passion for learning
Prof Abebe tells how his older brother Getnet, now a professor of mathematics, studied mathematics and physics at university while Amare was still at school. ‘It was Getnet who instilled the love for these subjects in me at an early age. In my later high school years, I was already reading popular books on fundamental physics, cosmology and astronomy, and the pioneers of these disciplines.’

As a result, Prof Abebe decided to pursue university studies in cosmology. ‘I was lucky enough to meet the late astrophysicist Dr Legesse Wetro at Addis Ababa University. Not only did he teach a course in GR, but he also got me involved in some interesting projects. This and interactions with fellow students and friends who were a few years ahead of me inspired me to pursue advanced studies at UCT under the supervision of Prof Peter Dunsby. The Cosmology and Gravity Group at UCT was very dynamic. I had the opportunity to work closely and interact with Prof Dunsby’s postdocs and students, as well as other members of the group.’

This steered him in the direction of focusing on cosmology as his lifelong passion for learning.

More about Cosmology and interdisciplinary cooperation
Prof Abebe continues his explanation of the importance of cosmology and interdisciplinary cooperation: ‘Cosmology is a multidisciplinary endeavour, so anyone getting trained in cosmology learns several skills such as mathematical, computational, statistical, and critical thinking skills. These skills are often needed in the workplace. It is also highly unlikely that someone studies cosmology without pondering philosophical questions about the nature of nature, being and reality.’

He continues: ‘Compared to scientists of centuries past, contemporary scientists are over-specialised. In fields like cosmology (and I think it is safe to generalise this to other fields as well) most of the stuff still left to discover requires abstract and complex thinking or computation, or big data analysis. It is becoming increasingly difficult to conduct ground-breaking and impactful research without involving several skills sets together. So, collaboration, both within a specific field and across disciplines, is increasingly becoming indispensable.’

Prof Abebe says physical cosmology is a young field – it is barely a century old. However, it is also a rapidly-evolving field with much left to explore.’ He believes the current and future generations of scientists will have to ‘uncover some of the most mysterious physical processes in the universe. Young South Africans should actively participate in this endeavour and put themselves (and South Africa) at the forefront of cutting-edge science.’

He adds: ‘Organisations such as NITheCS can play a pivotal role in enhancing South Africa’s academic landscape by creating networking opportunities of like-minded scientists and creating funding and mentorship opportunities for its Associates and students.’

Finally, Prof Abebe’s advice to young people is ‘to set their career goals in advance and work consistently towards that goal, no matter what the obstacles along the way. In fact, as Marcus Aurelius put it nearly two thousand years ago, “The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”.’