World Solar Challenge: representing Africa

A while back, I posted a map of World Solar Challenge teams. We have lost a few teams since then, which means that North West University (team 38) is now the only team representing the continent of Africa. NWU came 11th in the Challenger class at WSC 2015, and are coming back with a radical new car called Naledi. Good luck, guys!


Newton, gravity, and the apple


Isaac Newton and his apple (image: LadyofHats)

Among the numerous problems in this famous videoclip from South Africa (which I have previously mentioned) are some serious misunderstandings regarding Isaac Newton, gravity, and the apple story. According to William Stukeley (writing in 1726), “After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, and drank tea under the shade of some apple trees; only he [Newton], and myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. ‘Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,’ thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. ‘Why should it not go sideways, or upwards?’

Of course, Newton was hardly the first person to think seriously about gravity. About 2,000 years earlier, Aristotle had recorded his theories on the subject. These had a great influence on the Greek-speaking world, the Muslim world, and Western Europe, up until the time of Galileo. Galileo demonstrated several flaws in Aristotle’s approach, and made measurements which showed that falling objects follow parabolic paths.


Parabolas traced out by a bouncing ball (photo: MichaelMaggs)

Newton’s genius lay in being able to explain both Galileo’s findings and Kepler’s laws of planetary motion using a single mathematical equation: F = G m1 m2 / d 2. This articulated the strength of the gravitational force, while leaving the true nature of gravity mysterious. Consequently, Newton’s work was hardly the last word on the subject. Einstein’s general relativity made considerable advances in the understanding of gravity, but several questions still remain.

The scientific understanding of gravity neither started nor ended with Newton, which means that the speaker in the video linked above is quite wrong in saying: “Western knowledge … is saying that it was Newton and only Newton who knew and saw an apple falling and out of nowhere decided gravity existed and created an equation and that is it. Whether people knew Newton or not‚ or whatever happens in Western Africa‚ Northern Africa‚ the thing is the only way to explain gravity is through Newton, who sat under a tree and saw an apple fall.

Western knowledge says nothing of the kind, of course. It is a sad thing that “decolonisation” is being driven by such radical misunderstandings, when what is needed may in fact be a review of the humanities and improvements in basic education.


Decolonising science?


Plato in the Musei Capitolini, Rome (photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

Recently, students at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London demanded the elimination of white philosophers like Plato from their courses. The great Greek philosophers have had a huge influence on the modern world (and even on the medieval Arab world), but now it seems that their skin was the wrong colour.


Zulu sangoma’s set of divining bones, mid 20th century (photo: Anthony Dekker)

Even more disturbingly, this famous videoclip shows students at the University of Cape Town calling for science to be “decolonised” by removing modern “white” knowledge and replacing it by traditional “black” knowledge (like that of the sangoma). Some academics have condemned this as incipient Lysenkoism or otherwise misguided. Others appear to support the project.

I have previously written about when and why science began. Modern science is a product of medieval (not modern) Europe, but its roots lie further east. Today, however, it has become a truly international endeavour. Every nation contributes (see the infographic below), and science does not care what colour your skin is – only whether your ideas work. To deny science to Africans would be to condemn them to poverty, ill health, and (ironically) neocolonialism by the better-educated – so I hope that this call to “decolonise” science gains no traction.


Scientific publications by country in 2012 (from this Nature news story)


More African animals

Here are some more pictures of my recent trip to South Africa (click to zoom):


Giraffe (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Impala (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Pin-tailed whydah (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Wildebeest – also known as gnu (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Little egret (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Warthog with babies (photo: Anthony Dekker)


The Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, Johannesburg


Interior, Sci-Bono Discovery Centre (photo: Nick Gray)

On my recent South African trip, I visited the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Johannesburg. This science museum is a little like Questacon in Canberra. Sci-Bono’s strengths are the large number of well-built interactive exhibits and the large number of helpful staff. Exhibits concentrate mostly on physics and technology. All ages from toddlers to adults are catered for.


Interactive electrolysis exhibit (photo: Anthony Dekker)

The Sci-Bono Discovery Centre is not free, but is value for money. I enjoyed it, and Tripadvisor gives it 4.5 stars. Sci-Bono is active on Facebook and Twitter.


Atlas Cheetah E aircraft on display (photo: Alan Wilson)


African animals

Here are some pictures of my recent trip to South Africa (click to zoom):


Burchell’s zebra (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Lion (photo: Anthony Dekker)


White rhinoceros (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Southern masked weaver (photo: Anthony Dekker)


African elephant (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Goliath heron – world’s largest heron (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Sasol Solar Challenge Update

The Sasol Solar Challenge in South Africa ( ) is still calling on solar car teams to sign up before the May 1 deadline, but here is my updated list of teams who say they are attending:

Nuon Solar Team (Netherlands)

Nuon won the 2014 Sasol Solar Challenge and the 2015 World Solar Challenge. They are the clear favourites for this year’s event.


Nuon’s Nuna7S in South Africa in 2014 (photo: Nuon Solar Team)

Tokai (Japan)

It seems that Tokai will be back in South Africa this year, to challenge Nuon for first place.


The Tokai team in Australia in 2015 (my photo)

North-West University (South Africa)

NWU came 11th in the the 2015 World Solar Challenge, ahead of South African rivals UKZN. They should do well on home turf this year.


NWU’s Sirius X25 in Australia in 2015 (my photo)

Lodz Solar Team (Poland)

The team from Lodz will, I understand, be taking their lovely Eagle One cruiser to South Africa this year.


Eagle One in Australia in 2015 (my photo)

Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

This seems to be a new team, who are building an old-school symmetrical 4-wheel car.

Anadolu Solar Team (Turkey)

Anadolu were in the top 20 at WSC15. If I understand their (Tukish) web page correctly, they are off to South Africa as well.

Not competing this year are UKZN.

Update: Google is reporting the Sasol Solar Challenge website as potentially hacked (and a quick glance at the page HTML makes it clear why), so exercise more than usual caution. Trend Micro, scanurl.net, and urlvoid.com report no major concerns, but the website is of limited value anyway, being mostly about the 2014 race.


The Sasol Solar Challenge

This year’s Sasol Solar Challenge in South Africa is calling on solar car teams to sign up before May 1. The event will take place from September 24 to October 1 this year. Unlike the World Solar Challenge in Australia, it is a distance-based race, with a main course of about 2,000 km from Pretoria to Cape Town, and the possibility of driving additional loops up to 4,000 km or more. All the World Solar Challenge classes are permitted, plus the FIA Olympia class. Confirmed teams so far include:

Nuon Solar Team (Netherlands)

Nuon won the 2014 Sasol Solar Challenge and the 2015 World Solar Challenge. They are the clear favourites for this year’s event.


Nuon’s Nuna7S in South Africa in 2014 (photo: Nuon Solar Team)

North-West University (South Africa)

NWU came 11th in the the 2015 World Solar Challenge, ahead of South African rivals UKZN. They should do well on home turf this year.


NWU’s Sirius X25 in Australia in 2015 (my photo)

A number of other local and international teams have also expressed interest.

Update 1: Apparently Sheffield Hallam University will be there too ( ). They seem to be a new team, who are building an old-school symmetrical 4-wheel car.

Update 2: And it seems Tokai will be back in South Africa, duking it out with Nuon ( ).

Further updates here.