Dear Minister Pandor –
I wish to draw to your attention a matter of considerable importance to the future development of scientific research in South Africa. For several years now, I have been advocating the launching of a feasibility study into the establishment in South Africa of a large-scale scientific research facility known as a ‘synchrotron light source’.
This is, essentially, a large, horizontal, ring-like electron accelerator, several tens of metres in diameter, which, due to the presence of a high-energy circulating electron beam inside its containing vacuum chamber, sheds very high intensity electromagnetic radiation of very wide spectral range – from the infrared all the way up to X-rays – simultaneously in all tangential horizontal directions. This radiation, appropriately filtered and steered, can be used for an astounding variety of concurrently conducted scientific investigations into the structure and properties of matter, and is indeed being thus used in more than 50 such facilities around the world.
The types of investigations that can be conducted, all simultaneously at separate workstations positioned around the periphery of a single facility, range from the determination of the structures of biologically and medically significant molecular agglomerates, such as proteins, enzymes and viruses, including the mechanisms of operation of drugs and pharmaceuticals on such molecules, to the submicroscopic behaviour of materials important in industry, such as in construction, aerospace, electrical engineering and electronics, and in medical prosthetic implants. Indeed, several Nobel Prizes, in physics, chemistry and medicine, have been awarded over recent years for work done using synchrotron light sources as powerful and versatile research tools. These are, truly, engines of discovery.
I hope that this letter will stir your interest in this truly exciting and valuable concept, which holds the possibility, if managed well, of putting South Africa on the international stage as a significant player in high-value scientific research. I would like, therefore, to urge you to enable the speeding up of the processes that will lead to the establishment of a synchrotron light source-based research institution in South Africa.
I imagine that the appropriate champion of such a move, and host for such a facility, could be the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, perhaps through its National Laser Centre. A possible alternative champion and host could be iThemba LABS, formerly the National Accelerator Centre, at Faure, near Cape Town.
However, due to existing high workloads in any chosen organisation, it may be wise to assign the task of the actual drawing up of a feasibility study and proposal to a young PhD student as a thesis topic. Such a person would be able to give his or her full attention to the undertaking, and, at the same time establish his or her name in a new, major venture of undoubtedly great importance to the development of the country and the continent.
Anthony (Tony) Joel