School of Mathematics, Statistics & Computer Science

Professor Kavilan Moodley.

A Cosmic Odyssey to Professorship

Professor Kavilan Moodley of the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (SMSCS) and member of the Astrophysics Research Centre presented his inaugural lecture on the trajectory of his academic career, likening it to a cosmic odyssey of research and teaching focused on using observational data to confront cosmological theories.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Teaching and Learning, Professor Sandile Songca, welcomed guests and said that an academic’s progression to full professorship indicated growth in the already formidable professoriate at UKZN and was a critical factor in the institution’s success and its creation of new knowledge.

Dean and Head of the SMSCS, Professor Serestina Viriri, introduced Moodley, who completed his undergraduate and honours studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT) before undertaking a master’s at the then University of Natal (now UKZN) and his PhD at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom in 2002. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford University and returned to South Africa in 2003 to take up a position at UKZN.

Moodley’s research involves examining how cosmic microwave background (CMB) datasets, in combination with large-scale structure surveys, may be used to probe the early universe. He previously served as a scientific board member of the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT) project, a member of the international science working group for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), and an associate editor of the South African Journal of Science.

Moodley won the South African Institute of Physics Silver Jubilee Medal in 2007, and in 2011 and 2022 received a Fulbright Visiting Research Scholar Fellowship to visit Princeton University and the Flatiron Institute of the Simons Foundation in New York, respectively. He is a member of the National Research Foundation’s Astronomy Advisory Council and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory Science Advisory Committee, and in 2020 was elected to the Academy of Science of South Africa. He has 110 published papers to his name with more than 8500 citations and has presented invited lectures at international conferences including the Dark Side of the Universe Conference. He is a Principal Investigator for the Hydrogen Intensity and Real-time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX) Telescope Project.

His interest in science began with the Mathematics Olympiads in high school, and he credited Professors Poobhalan Pillay and Sudan Hansraj for inspiring him on this path in his early years. At school, he also became fascinated with the wonder of the night sky.

Moodley covered the importance of gravity in holding the universe together and the balance of gravity and pressure in the solar system before going on to describe the realm of galaxies.

Interweaving his lecture with poetry and his own experiences and learning about the universe and the mentorship he had received, Moodley began by dedicating much of his success to his family, teachers and mentors, and most importantly, his mother.

He acknowledged UCT’s Professors Igor Barashenkov, Peter Dunsby and George Ellis for influencing his journey.

Moodley spoke about space-time curvature and the cosmological model, touching on the possibilities for what the geometry of the universe could be, and spoke about important key observations of the universe: that it is expanding, and that cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) enables the hunt for the universe’s origins.

He acknowledged UKZN Professors Sunil Maharaj and Kesh Govinder who supervised his master’s on using general relativity to explore alternatives to the hot big bang cosmology. His time at the University of Cambridge was shaped by the supervision of Professors Neil Turok and Martin Bucher, and he acknowledged Professor Roy Maartens as a mentor during his time in the UK.

At the University of Cambridge, Moodley used observations of the CMBR to constrain the models for the early fluctuations in the universe, work he also explored at Oxford University with Professors Pedro Ferreira and Joseph Silk.

Moodley then covered his work in CMB anisotropies, elaborating on the cosmic energy budget that constrains the universe’s energy. He described returning to UKZN to take on graduate fellows and postdoctoral students and expressed his thanks to them for their role in his career.

His work moved on to examining the universe’s large-scale structure, working with the ACT on exploring galaxy clusters.

Speaking about developments in the field, Moodley said the universe was accelerating due to the negative pressure of dark energy, the properties of which are unknown and pose one of the foremost questions in the field. Moodley’s work as part of HIRAX involves measuring this accelerated expansion using baryonic acoustic oscillations as a “cosmic ruler”.

Moodley described the collaborative HIRAX instrument and its progress despite setbacks, and the opportunity afforded to understand the large-scale structures in the universe through southern sky surveys.

He concluded by saying the privilege he had experienced in his education gave him the responsibility to uphold the values of well-being, respect, inclusion, collaboration, and mentorship in the pursuit of science. He acknowledged colleagues at UKZN and the astronomy community in South Africa for the inspiration they provided.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied