Tanzania’s astronomer takes to the cosmos

True. Both astrology and astronomy deal with celestial objects, yet their nature, aim, methodology, and scientific legitimacy are fundamentally different. Astronomy is a legitimate scientific discipline, whereas astrology is a belief system with no scientific support.

Even among scientists, astronomy is widely recognised as a legitimate scientific discipline with a well-established body of knowledge and a history of significant contributions to our understanding of the universe. Astrology is not recognised as a science by the scientific community. It is categorised as a pseudoscience since its concepts lack empirical support and scientific rigour.

Dr. Noorali  Tayabali  Jiwaji, a Senior Lecturer in Physics and an Astronomy consultant for the Open University of Tanzania OUT), as well as the founding member and Chairman of the Astronomy and Space Science Association of Tanzania (ASSAT), revealed this and more to me during our recent conversation.

Dr. Jiwaji, an experimental physicist with a Ph.D. in Environmental Physics in micrometeorology and instrumentation, has been a leader in the advancement of astronomy in Tanzania since 1978. He is the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Education and Outreach coordinator for Tanzania, and mong his scientific interests are dark skies and astrotourism, and he has pushed for the preservation of dark skies in Tanzania to promote astrotourism as an additional attraction to Tanzania’s famed wildlife circuits.

He is currently working on an international project to generate interest in the installation of a Milimeter Radio Telescope on Mount Kilimanjaro’s Saddle area, which will serve as the easternmost baseline for the Next Generation Black Hole Telescope’s radio telescope network, with the added attraction of the beauty of the night skies from Kilimanjaro. At Tanzania’s Open University, he is developing a curriculum for Astrotourguide certification.

He explains that astronomy helps us understand our Universe by observing what we see in the skies above us, as well as everything outside our Earth and its place in the Universe.

“Astronomy makes everyone wonder what is out there in the skies because we can’t go there and look at it closely.”Many sky occurrences, such as crimson sunsets and sunrises, the New Moon and Full Moon, are watched by millions of people, and for many, they are religious events.”

“Day by day changes in shape of the Moon in a monthly cycle and solar and lunar eclipses are a wonder of nature that everyone is amazed about” , according to Dr. Jiwaji.

He swiftly adds that people in Tanzania must learn Astronomy in order to understand why certain events in the heavens occur. Farmers, for example, use one of the Pleiades star clusters, known locally as Kilimia, to determine when the crop season begins.

“It is also important to understand the importance of satellites in communication and GPS locations.” ‘Knowledge of our Solar System and Milky Way galaxy as seen from Earth is critical for comprehending our place in the Universe,’ says the astronomy specialist.

He implies that many objects in the night sky, such as planets and stars, can be seen with naked eyes and that the positions of these objects in the sky, where to find them from any location and at any time, now, in the future, or even in the past, can be found using modern software on computers and phones.  For more detailed observations, telescopes are utilised.

“There are no public observatories in Tanzania, but individual telescopes are available.” Many people own telescopes because they are no longer prohibitively pricey. There are also portable planetariums where views of galaxies and deep space can be viewed.

“We can also follow many observations of astronomy objects and event through remote telescope in other part of the world through the internet and videos on YouTube” he went on to say.

The Astronomy and Space Science Association of Tanzania (ASSAT), he says,  is a Tanzanian organisation for astronomy enthusiasts, students, and teachers, and that there are additional WhatsApp groups where they share current event news and information, as well as debate strategies to improve awareness and interest in astronomy.

The IAU is a global organisation of professional astronomers, promoting astronomy around the world through three key agencies, namely the Offices of Astronomy for Development (OAD), Astronomy for Education (OAE), Astronomy Outreach (OAE), and Young Astronomers are the first. The IAU honours volunteer coordinators who represent these offices in their respective countries. The NAEC is the National Astronomy Education Coordinator, and the NOC is the National Outreach Coordinator. Dr. Jiwaji is Tanzania’s representative in all of these offices.

Dr. Jiwaji identifies textbook content as one of the problems that Tanzanian astronomers face, claiming that it is not very clear or well presented.

“Because the names of planets in Kiswahili were mixed up and confusing in primary schools, the correct names have now been identified,” he explains, adding that according to Swahili maritime tradition, the first six planets visible with the naked eye are named.  From closest to the Sun – Utarid, Zuhura, Dunia/Ardhi, Mirihi, Mshtarii/Sambulaa, and Zohali.

“Students frequently struggle to understand what is happening in the skies based on what they see from Earth. This is one of the more challenging occupations for teachers, hence more teacher training in Astronomy is required,” he says with a sombre tone.

Is it taught in Tanzania? Astronomy, according to Dr. Jiwaji, is not now taught as a degree programme in universities, but it is taught in Physics courses at OUT, University of Dar es salaam (UDSM), and University of Dodoma (UDOM).

He mentions that postgraduate degrees in Astrophysics are available at OUT and UDOM as dissertation or thesis study under the Physics course, and that OUT is studying light pollution, astronomy tourism, and radioastronomy.

“We have degrees in Astrophysics from UDOM and Out,” he says while emphasizing the need of the government’s attention to increasing the content of Astronomy in school courses and upgrading teachers’ Astronomy knowledge and practical expertise so that it may be taught properly and precisely to students.

He believes that in order to advance the field of Astronomy and Space Science, the government should invest in the establishment of an Astronomy and Space Science Institute where human capacity can be developed as well as research and development can be carried out using the expertise that is currently dispersed throughout the country.

“The current satellite development programme is primarily concerned with technological advancement. Similarly, Astronomy and Science must be promoted as part of the establishment of a new institute.

“Astronomy is the oldest science, but it is also the most modern discipline, so we should make every effort to understand Astronomy and expand our knowledge of Astronomy and Space Science.”

“As a result, we need the brightest minds to pursue careers in Science and Astronomy,” concluded Tanzania’s top astronomer.

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