02 July 2019 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Charl Devenish
Dr Barnard Fanaroff and Mr Nikile Ntsababa
Dr Bernard Lewis Fanaroff, former director of SKA SA, received an honorary doctorate at the UFS Winter Graduation ceremony on 28 June 2019.

The University of the Free State bestowed an Honorary Doctorate on Dr Bernard Fanaroff, former director of SKA SA, at its Winter Graduation ceremony on 28 June 2019.

Since 1950, the UFS has recognised individual excellence through its honorary awards, honorary doctorates, shields of honour, Council medals, and Chancellor’s medals. Some of these individuals include late President Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and American media proprietor and philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey.

Dr Fanaroff completed his first postgraduate degree at the University of the Witwatersrand and obtained his PhD in radio astronomy from the University of Cambridge.

Building the world’s best radio telescope

In 1974, he (with co-author Julia Riley) wrote a seminal paper that laid the foundation for the classification scheme of certain types of active galaxies, namely the Fanaroff-Riley I and II galaxies. “This seminal paper, which was published more than 40 years ago, received more than 2 100 citations, and is regularly cited to this day,” said Prof Koos Terblans, Head of the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.

Between 2005 and 2015, Dr Fanaroff was the Director of the South African Square Kilometre Array (SKA-SA) project. “Working with the wonderful SKA-SA team to win the SKA site bid and build the world's best radio telescope in the Great Karoo – the MeerKAT – was one of the major highlights of my career,” said Dr Fanaroff, who also did a lot of work during his career which is completely unrelated to science.

Among the various awards bestowed on him, was the Karl Jansky Lectureship from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) for his exceptional contribution to radio astronomy and his unparalleled leadership through public service. He shares this honour with seven Nobel Laureates who also received the Jansky award before him. 

Honoured to be recognised by an excellent institution 

In his congratulatory message to Dr Fanaroff during the graduation ceremony on the Bloemfontein Campus on 28 June 2019, UFS Chancellor, Dr Khotso Mokhele, said Dr Fanaroff was a very quiet and reserved person. However, every time he speaks, there is a change in the conversation, because “words of wisdom have just been spoken”. “Your contribution to the global scientific community is immeasurable. South Africa is immensely proud to count you under its sons and daughters,” he said. 

On receiving the honorary doctorate from the UFS, Dr Fanaroff responded: “Several students from the Karoo who have received SKA bursaries have studied or are studying at the UFS.  It is a great honour to be recognised by an excellent university which has shown that it cares for students.”

Nine students from the UFS Department of Physics received bursaries from the SKA Human Capital Development bursary programme to complete their postgraduate studies. Three students completed their BSc Honours, and six received their PhDs. Some of these graduates are from Central Africa and Uganda. 

He has done remarkable work during his career and still aspires to do more. When asked about his future plans, Dr Fanaroff indicated that he would like to do some research again – after a 45-year break.

Although he played a key role in a mega-science project and made an extraordinary impact on the development of science in South Africa, the important things in life still matter to him. He values his wife Wendy greatly, and he would like to see a just, fair, and prosperous South Africa, without poverty and gross inequality.

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