Meet the team: Dr Rudi Kuhn

Aug 22, 2017

by Stephanie Kuhn

Getting to know the SALT team:

Astronomer Dr Rudi Kuhn

Rudi

It all started with a small boy having a big dream

Dr Rudi Kuhn was only five years old when his dad taught him the names of the planets in our solar system, which at the time still included Pluto before it was demoted to a dwarf planet. From that moment, his fascination with the mysteries of space took root. After saving his pocket money for two years, Kuhn bought his first telescope at the age of eight. This telescope is still in his office today.

After a short career in the IT industry, he chose to follow his passion

When Kuhn shared his intention of becoming an astronomer with a high school career counsellor in the late 1990s, he was quickly discouraged from pursuing this dream, the reason being a lack of job opportunities. “It was the era when the only respectable careers involved becoming either a doctor, accountant or teacher,” explains Kuhn. He consequently qualified as an IT technician and travelled to England to work there, like so many school leavers at the time.

But Kuhn’s passion for astronomy never went away. During his time in England, he did some research to explore his options and came across the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) offered at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Upon returning to South Africa, Kuhn was faced with a life-altering decision: on the same day, he received a job offer for a respectable position in IT, as well as his letter of acceptance from UCT. Although he was aware of the sacrifices involved in returning to university, Kuhn chose to follow his childhood dream – and he has not looked back since.

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The image above is KELT: Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope.

Becoming an astronomer is a long but very rewarding journey

It took twelve years in total to complete his studies and qualify as an astronomer. “It was a tough journey. I now know that ‘imposture syndrome’ is a very real thing,” says Kuhn with a laugh. “There were numerous times during my PhD when I felt I wasn’t good enough to make it.” But in the end his perseverance and dedication paid off.

It also turns out that Kuhn’s IT skills were not wasted. “A significant part of working in astronomy is reducing and interpreting the massive amounts of data we receive from the telescopes when we do observations,” explains Kuhn. This requires programming skills, which means that in the end his experience in IT is proving very valuable in his job as an astronomer.

 Being involved in building a telescope from scratch was a definite highlight

One of the highlights during Kuhn’s studies was helping to build the KELT-South telescope in Sutherland as part of his PhD. KELT stands for Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope and its main purpose is to look for transiting exoplanets. “I have a keen interest in the different instruments used in telescopes, such as the camera and spectrograph,” explains Kuhn. “Being physically involved in the process of building a telescope was therefore an amazing experience.”

To infinity and beyond…

So what is so inspiring about astronomy? “The sheer size and scope of the universe,” says Kuhn excitedly. “The ‘Hubble Ultra Deep Field’ image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope is one of my favourite images of space,” he explains. The image shows about 10 000 galaxies, each containing up to hundreds of billions of stars, covering billions of light years. And the best part? “This is just a small sample – there are up to 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe alone. Who knows what we might discover in future?”