There has always been someone preaching tolerance and pointing to the thing that may finally result in a lasting peace between people. Yet in 2018, we still fight wars that leave millions dead. There’s Syria; the never-ending Middle East conflict; there’ the tension between North Korea and the USA; neighbouring Mozambique looks like it could explode at any moment again and world politics seems to be moving more and more towards the right, as time passes. This is especially true when it comes to tolerance of immigrants. As digital technology shrinks our planet, what is the silver bullet that’s going to bring us closer together with greater compassion and tolerance as a human race? Allow me to present science as that thing. Unlike the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, which enriched only a few already wealthy people, who could afford to take advantage of the sudden mechanisation, the Digital Revolution of our times is open to everyone.
It truly is a revolution that – as Oasis sang in the 90’s – you can fight from your bed. And this revolution will be so much more effective, if we all work together and pool our resources. Watching scientific developments from all over the world, it often strikes me how independent groups are working on exactly the same problems and coming up with similar possible solutions. For example, there are teams in the US, Germany, Japan, China and Australia all racing to successfully develop the world’s first feasible flying car. Artificial Intelligence is another field that sees numerous teams working independently from each other, but ultimately aiming to achieve the same thing. Why are they not working together for the benefit of all of humanity?
Enter local physicist Professor Malik Maaza; a naturalised Capetonian, born in Algeria in 1963 and who works tirelessly on bringing scientists together across the socio-and-geo-political spectrum that aims to divide them. Besides being a world-renowned peace activist, Prof Maaza is also respected globally for his work in the pioneering field of Nanoscience. It is so new and specialised that only a handful of individuals and institutions are actively working in this field, which deals with manufacturing on the scale of DNA – which is a thousand times smaller than cellular level. At this level, well-known materials take on strange new characteristics with fascinating applications, even more fantastic than science fiction could ever possibly imagine. For example, Google is working on something known as the Google Pill; essentially a tablet filled with nano-robots that we will swallow and will be able to monitor our health from the inside, and even predict medical issues long before they occur. So focused is Prof Maaza’s work, that the World Cultural Council has made him the recipient of one of its most prestigious awards – the JOSÉ VASCONCELOS World Award of Education for positive impact on the cultural legacy of mankind. He will travel to the 35th World Cultural Council Award Ceremony to be hosted at the City University of Hong Kong in November, where he will receive the award.
Prof Maaza is involved in so much good work, that it is almost hard to believe. But let’s start by saying that he subscribes to a scientific doctrine that gained prominence at the end of World War II, when one of the physicists who helped to perfect the Hydrogen Bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sir Joseph Rotblat started advocating for scientists to act ethically and in the interest humanity and world peace. After witnessing the destructive power of the atomic bomb, Rotblat became a major figure in founding bodies aimed at convincing world leaders to outlaw weapons of mass destruction. Prof Maaza on the other hand takes this philosophy even further by actually working hands-on with diverse groups of scientists at ground level, putting the principle into practice. It’s these ongoing actions of his, along with his emphasis on the importance of education for societal development and sustainability, that convinced some of his international peers that he deserves the award.
As a Senior Research Scientist at iThemba LABS (based in Faure near Somerset West), Mâaza is also a Professor at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and holder of the UNESCO-UNISA Africa Chair in Nanosciences and Nanotechnology. Maaza is so determined to put Africa at the forefront of this new tech, that he has worked tirelessly to raise funds worldwide to support foreign researchers from less affluent countries. He has assisted scientists from war zones in Africa and the Middle East to pursue their research goals and has also organised periodic exchanges by renowned scientists from Israeli and Arabic origin, seeking to build bridges through science. He has a clear vision of how science can be used as a tool to empower individuals to address some of humanity’s most pressing challenges, which has been demonstrated through his commitment to training and mentoring young scientists. As a dedicated mentor, he has contributed significantly to the education of numerous PhD students and postdoctoral researchers.
Prof Mâaza’s contributions in the area of education are not confined to the classroom. He has created platforms for the introduction of emerging areas of education like material science, space sciences and laser sciences. He has set up many new facilities that underpin a wide range of scientific programs, established his own team and exploited his own expertise and ideas to build strong relations with both academia and industry at national and international level. Prof Mâaza’s dedication to the cause of Women in Science is also witnessed through his role as a member of the international as well as the Sub-Saharan juries of L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science. He is a major player in promoting the role of women in science, especially those living in low and medium income countries, and is also a peace activist, using science as a powerful path for fostering human relations between young researchers.
While he plays on the global stage, Prof Maaza has played a crucial part in keeping South Africa at the leading edge of international research. In this sense, he plays a key strategic and planning role in developing South African research programs and research grant proposals. His work has earned him international recognition by UNESCO, which appointed him to the first South-South Chair in Nanosciences & Nanotechnology: the UNESCO UNISA Africa Chair in Nanosciences and Nanotechnology, also known as U2ACN2. Recognised by the global scientific community for the value of his published work through frequent invitations to speak at international events, he acts as an ambassador and voice of the African continent in the multi-disciplinary field of nanotechnology. And as such, he epitomes Rotblat’s philosophy that “technology drives us together; in many ways we are becoming like one family.” Maaza is also the poster child for why science could finally be the silver bullet we have been searching for that will finally open our eyes to the fact that we are all inter-connected and can achieve so much more when we work together.