UKZN maths professor wins Harry Oppenheimer Award

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 30 Jun 2023
Professor Sunil Maharaj from UKZN and Jonathan Oppenheimer, chairman of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.
Professor Sunil Maharaj from UKZN and Jonathan Oppenheimer, chairman of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.

Sunil Maharaj, a senior professor in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), is this year’s recipient of the annual Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award.

The accolade recognises Maharaj’s exceptional work in the field of gravitational processes within evolving stars, a pivotal area bridging science, mathematics and astronomy.

The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust says under the visionary partnership with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), South Africa’s strategic vision of advancing astrophysics is being realised through Maharaj’s ground-breaking project.

It explains that Maharaj’s research explores the intricate workings of gravitational processes within stars, offering crucial insights into our understanding of the universe.

This pursuit has been a fundamental scientific challenge since the early days of gravity research, the trust adds.

With a focus on collaborative efforts, this project brought together dedicated teams from SA, Tanzania and India.

According to the trust, the teams’ collective expertise and contributions play an instrumental role in unravelling the mysteries of the cosmos.

It explains that by fostering international collaboration, this initiative showcases the power of uniting diverse minds and resources towards a common goal.

“Professor Maharaj's achievement not only highlights the exceptional talent within South Africa but also underscores the nation's commitment to fostering scientific excellence and becoming a leader in the field of astrophysics,” says Jonathan Oppenheimer, chairman of the trust.

“The collaborative nature of this project serves as a testament to the power of international cooperation and knowledge sharing.”

The award comes as South Africa is making huge strides in the field of astronomy, as SKA, the world’s largest radio telescope, is being constructed by SA jointly with Australia.

Maharaj notes that although SA is still catching up to developed countries in astronomy, the SKA is to the advantage of the country.

The practical implications of this research extend far beyond the realm of theoretical physics, he says, adding that a deeper understanding of gravitational processes within evolving stars paves the way for technological advancements and potential applications in various fields.

He believes it opens new avenues for astronomical discoveries, space exploration and the development of innovative technologies that can benefit SA and the global scientific community.

Upon winning the award, Maharaj said: “It has been a very humbling experience to be shortlisted for the award, and to actually receive it. It came as a surprise to me, as I thought it would go to something more observational and practical, like a product or a cure for COVID.”

Professor Nana Poku, UKZN vice-chancellor and principal, expressed pride and congratulated Maharaj on receiving this award. “His exceptional research in gravitational processes within evolving stars is a beacon of scientific excellence, demonstrating SA's progress in astrophysics.

“This monumental achievement is not only a testament to Professor Maharaj’s unrivalled dedication and expertise, but also a clear demonstration of SA’s capability to be a global leader in astronomy. As we celebrate this momentous occasion, we look forward to further pioneering breakthroughs in astrophysics and other fields from our esteemed academic community.”

The Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award is granted to scholars who are engaged in cutting-edge and internationally significant work that has particular application to the advancement of knowledge, teaching, research and development in SA and beyond.

Maharaj will be collaborating with leading experts in gravity theories and relative astrophysics, including professor Megan Govender from Durban University of Technology and professor Aroon Beesham from the Mangosuthu University of Technology, among others from South African universities.

International partners will include professor Jefta Sunzu from University of Dodoma and professor Eunice Mureithi from University of Dar es Salaam, both in Tanzania. Others are professor Sushant Ghosh from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and professor Narayan Banerjee from Indian Institute of Science and Education Research, Kolkata, both in India.

As SA continues to make significant strides in astrophysical research, the trust notes this ground-breaking project stands as a testament to the country's unwavering dedication to scientific advancement.

“By nurturing talent, fostering collaboration, and pushing the boundaries of knowledge, South Africa’s impact in the fields of science and physics is poised to create a brighter future for all,” the trust says.

Speaking to ITWeb at the event, Maharaj said: “It’s a prestigious award because it’s an award that goes across all disciplines. It’s not just an award that only focuses on science or a specific field. So, for me, it’s quite humbling.

“I was surprised that it came this way. I was also surprised because the selection and nomination process for this award is quite rigorous. I don’t think you can simply apply – it has to go through a lot of processes. I am very pleased, of course, and I feel very honoured not only for myself but also for my students and colleagues.”