It was the late 1990s when Rutgers astronomer Ted Williams made his first visit to South Africa
Williams, a native Midwesterner, felt right at home.
“We were driving east from Johannesburg and my wife and I looked at each other and agreed this is more like Ohio or Indiana where we grew up, ” said Williams, a professor with the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS). “It was all this rolling farmland, much like the Midwest.”
Williams was in South Africa to help in the development of the most powerful optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere: the Southern African Large Telescope, or SALT, in which Rutgers holds a 10 percent partnership. Williams has since made many return trips, playing a leadership role in SALT, and developing a deep attachment to South Africa and a keen understanding of its internal issues.
Now this soft spoken Youngstown, Ohio native is poised to make a major life change that will greatly expand his involvement with astronomy in South Africa.
Williams, a Rutgers professor since 1979, will become one of the top astronomy officials in South Africa’s national government.
He has been appointed director of the South African Astronomical Observatory, or SAAO, which oversees the nation’s optical observing facilities. The SAAO’s mission is to conduct research, maintain state-of-the-art facilities and instrumentation, and promote astronomy and astrophysics throughout Southern Africa.
Williams will take a leave of absence from Rutgers beginning in January and move with his wife and four dogs to SAAO headquarters in Cape Town, where they will live in the director’s home on a historic campus that was once the Royal Observatory, the first scientific institute in Sub-Saharan Africa.
South Africa, with its clear skies, and dry conditions, has long been a hub for astronomy. The Royal Observatory was established by the British in the early 1800s to help guide ships off the coast of Africa by providing more accurate positions for southern stars.
Today there are number of observatories, and some new high-profile radio telescope projects in development. The government has passed legislation to protect land that might be suitable for observatories.
“Ted is taking one of the preeminent astronomy positions in the world,” said Kathryn Uhrich, Dean for Math and Physical Sciences in the SAS. “It’s a testament to Ted’s stature as an astronomer, as well as the excellence of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.”
The new job will be something of a change from teaching, Williams said. He’ll be leading an organization, overseeing his own research and technical staff, and building relationships with government officials to win support for astronomy. Because SAAO facilities are used by colleges and universities throughout the country, he will be deeply involved with the country’s astronomers and the issues they face.
“I was intrigued by the challenges of this position,” he said. “It’s clearly going to be a departure from what I have been doing for the last 33 years,”
A key part of his mission will be promoting science education in a country that’s still recovering from decades of intellectual repression under apartheid.
“There are many wonderful people as innately skilled as any American but have been denied education for generations and denied economic advantage for generations,” he said. “So there is an incredible amount of work to do to restore those balances.”
Astronomers, he said, are particularly well-suited to stir up curiosity and interest in science across diverse populations.
“Everybody likes to look up at the sky and wonder what is out there, and how they fit into this big picture,” he said. “So it’s a great way to get people in general and kids in particular excited about science and to get generations of students interested in technological and technical careers and education.”
Rutgers was one of the first universities to divest from South Africa during the apartheid era. In the 1990s, the university embraced the SALT project as an opportunity to support post-apartheid South Africa, and to have an affiliation with one of the world’s major telescopes.
The SALT telescope is overseen by an international consortium of 13 partners. Williams will continue to have involvement with SALT because the SAAO serves as a contractor providing operation and maintenance support.
But he will also be busy overseeing and possibly expanding the national telescopes which are housed near SALT in a remote facility several hours from Cape Town.
Officials at the SAAO said Williams is a scholar, leader, and a hands-on troubleshooter who “gets his hands dirty” designing and working on the intricate instrumentation of the telescope.
“Ted is just as comfortable at formal board meetings as he is climbing up on the telescope, Allen key in hand,” officials said in a statement.