Searching for the next Einstein

By Erna van Wyk

11 April 2012

We need an Einstein in the 21st Century, a thinker. When last were you “The Thinker”?, asks renowned astronomer, Prof. David Block, Director of the Cosmic Dust Laboratory sponsored by AECI and AVENG and Professor in the School of Computational and Applied Mathematics at Wits University. He believes the next Einstein will not be driven by technology, but will be someone with a highly intuitive mindset. Maybe, even someone with a deep passion for the Arts as well as the Sciences. 

An intuitive mind himself, Block says scientists have access to great technology today, but it comes at a price. “Technology is advancing at such a rate today, for thousands of people it has become their master and not their servant. I am not decrying this advancement and I also use sophisticated space-borne technology, but it has never been my master.” 

Block, who has been shaping young minds and leaders of the future at Wits for more than 25 years, says the scientists of this century should not follow the herd, but need incredible insight and an open mindset, using both cerebral hemispheres. “I would not be surprised if the next Einstein will be a scientist with an intense interest in art.” 

Block says today there is an emphasis on scientists to specialise in their fields, but a multidisciplinary approach to thinking leads to a far greater understanding of the world. 

In 1969 when another South African astronomer, Jack Bennett, discovered Comet Bennett, the 15 year-old Block, a pupil at the Krugersdorp High School, remembers how he met Bennett in Pretoria. “I was truly so shy and in great awe of Jack Bennett. However, that meeting was filled with profound and beautiful memories. My passion in astronomy was fuelled and my father, Leon, bought me my first telescope and had an observatory constructed in our back garden - complete with a rotating dome,” Block recalls. 

Block was hooked on applied mathematics and found it his natural home when he started his studies at Wits. But in his early days he was engaging with professors in different fields and as a 19 year-old student was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of London. His first research paper, on relativistic astrophysics, was published in London, by the Royal Astronomical Society, when he was just 20. 

“Over the years art has become a great impetus in the way I approach astronomical problems. I am fascinated by the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte’s well-known work, Ceci n'est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe). It depicts a pipe, but it is not an actual pipe. My specific interest is the morphology and symmetries found in spiral galaxies; galaxies are the building blocks of the universe.” 

“If I have not been fascinated by Magritte’s works, I would never ask questions such as: What is a galaxy? The truth is, nobody knows. We see representations of a galaxy, but never the galaxy itself. Multitudes of galaxies contain dark matter, but nobody knows what it is. The Universe is filled with dark energy. No one knows what that is either. Magritte is a truly a great master in helping my team and I approach such subjects with a mindset so far removed from traditional ones.” 

Block says these are the kind of critical questions that other disciplines like the arts, literature and humanities contribute to scientific thinking. 

The year 2009 marked the International Year of Astronomy, and there has been a public resurgence in understanding the Universe. Applied Mathematics is included here, because of the different areas to which it can be applied. “Applied mathematics can be applied to a plethora of different disciplines, such as engineering, medicine, finance and astronomy, of course.” 

Applied mathematics contains a myriads of tools which one can utilise to model galaxies and even to further our understanding of the Universe itself. 

Block’s research work has twice been featured on the cover of the prestigious scientific journal, Nature. He was the Principal Investigator of a team of astronomers from Harvard University, the Observatoire de Paris and the University of the Witwatersrand who used the Spitzer Space Telescope to solve a 200 million year old riddle in our neighbouring spiral galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy. He is a recipient of the Vice-Chancellor’s Research Award and he has been a Guest Researcher at Observatories around the globe. 

“It is wondrous to study the night sky. There is something very creative about studying the Universe,” says Block.