Emeritus Physics Professor Named a Legend of South African Science

Emeritus Professor Manfred Hellberg of the School of Chemistry and Physics has been profiled among 62 long-standing members of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) in its Legends of South African Science II publication.

ASSAf commended the members featured, whose disciplinary diversity contributes to the strength of the academy, for their academic excellence and scholarship.

‘It is hoped that the legacy of these inspirational champions… will continue to inspire us all, and to grow the next generation of leaders in making science relevant to society,’ stated ASSAf.

Hellberg spent 38 years at the former University of Natal (UN), retiring in 2004. His family’s association with the University stretches back a century to when his father attended, and Hellberg said he thoroughly enjoyed his career and the opportunities that the University of Natal and UKZN provided over the years.

‘UKZN, with its forebears, has a proud history and I trust that our Institution will continue to flourish, despite some ups and downs along the way,’ he said.

Hellberg’s profile details how his natural curiosity about the world was directed towards theoretical physics by a teacher at his high school in Cape Town, while his father cultivated in him a love of research. He studied Mathematics and Physics at the University of Cape Town (UCT), aiming for an academic career and channelling his focus into plasma physics.

Hellberg received a scholarship to pursue his PhD at the University of Cambridge, where he shared an office with Stephen Hawking and made the most of the highly academic environment, attending several international conferences and cultivating a network that stood him in good stead throughout his career.

He joined the University of Natal in 1965, where he was active in numerous University committees, particularly in research, staff development, student development and academic support, and resource allocation, and participated in university leadership, including serving as Dean of Science and twice as Pro Vice-Chancellor. His collaborative, pioneering research has focused on waves in high-temperature ionised gases, or plasmas, yielding more than 100 international journal articles, including a number of highly-cited contributions.

‘I am particularly grateful to the many colleagues who made it possible for me take part in all aspects of academic life and who kept me on my toes,’ said Hellberg, singling out former Vice-Chancellor the late Professor Desmond Clarence, the late Professor Dave Walker, and Emeritus Professor Roger Raab.

‘Much of my career was also enabled by some excellent members of the support staff who were always ready to go the extra mile in the interests of the University and its academic aims, and I have also benefitted from interaction with a range of undergraduate and postgraduate students.’

Hellberg’s contributions have included serving as president of the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP), campaigning for the preservation of laser facilities and expertise that led to the establishment of the National Laser Centre, leading an international panel to advise on the future of Physics in South Africa, and acting as adviser to then Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Naledi Pandor on strategies and policy to develop the field of Astronomy in South Africa.

Internationally, he has served on the Plasma Physics Commission of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, on the editorial board of the journal, Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, and on the Editorial Advisory Panel for the Institute of Physics Plasma Physics book series.

Hellberg has served on advisory committees for several international conference series, and co-chaired the International Conference on the Physics of Dusty Plasmas in Durban in 2002. He was elected a Fellow of UN, now UKZN, the Royal Society of South Africa, and the UK Institute of Physics. He has been an ASSAf member since 2000 and has served on its council.

Hellberg is both a Fellow and an Honorary Member of the SAIP, and a recipient of its highest honour, the SAIP De Beers Gold Medal, awarded for his outstanding research career and his service to Physics in South Africa.

Following his retirement, he increased his research productivity with colleagues and students at UKZN and internationally, and his work continues to enjoy a high citation rate.

Also included in Legends of South African Science II are a number of UKZN alumni, and former and current staff members, including Walker; former Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ahmed Bawa; Scientific Advisor to the School of Clinical Medicine, Professor Miriam Adhikari; Honorary Associate Professor Arvinkumar Bhana of the Centre for Rural Health; Research Professor in Humanities, Professor Saleem Badat; alumnus and former staff member, Professor Diane Grayson; former Dean, Professor Raymond Haines; part-time lecturer in the Property Management and Quantity Surveying Programme, Mr Eugene Julies; alumnus and former Chair of Council, Dr Vincent Maphai; and former lecturer, Professor Peter Tyson.

The publication honours other alumni or luminaries who spent time at UKZN or its antecedent institutions, including the late Dr Neville Comins; founding Vice-Chancellor of the Durban University of Technology, Professor Dan Ncayiyana; former Vice-Chancellor of UCT Professor Mamphela Ramphele; and Professor Iqbal Parker.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Liz Clarke