University of Johannesburg: Fundamental Research Funded by Applied Physics


In ten years the University of Johannesburg’s physics department has grown from 8 staff members to a team of over 30. According to Prof Andre Strydom, the head of the department, this is because word has spread about the support structure that is in place for research at the university.

The world of physics is divided into two worlds though, that of fundamental research and applied physics; and according to at least one professor, the applied physics is necessary for the fundamental research to take place because the applied physics provides the ‘bankroll’.

Prof Simon Connell says, “If we want science to be sustainable, we have to pay attention to realising innovation. The government funds things if they delivery on good research, capacity building and innovation. If you take any one of those three away, it becomes less attractive.”

Prof Connell says that about half of his research involves the ATLAS experiment, the largest on the Large Hadron Collider project being undertaken by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern). This would be considered fundamental research; however, Connell says that he also has a strong focus on the applied side, with patents pending on a machine that can visualise diamonds without having to cut into the kimberlite rock which contains them.

“I prefer fundamental physics, but we funded the fundamental from applied for 10 years before the government started to fund it. We wouldn’t have gotten where we are without applied research,” he says.

Prof Strydom however is focused on fundamental research. He says that funding agencies need to realise the importance of fundamental research. “China is going to be streaks ahead of us because they are throwing money at fundamental research,” he says.

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