During the 1960’s, a brilliant young mathematician and physicist, George Philander, was prevented from continuing his studies due to apartheid restrictions. Refusing to be limited by discrimination, George applied to Harvard in the US and was accepted. More than fifty years later, the world renowned Professor of Geosciences, George Philander, was awarded the Vetlesen Prize, the most prestigious international award in the field of earth sciences. He shares the award with his scientific partner and colleague, Mark Cane.
Born and raised for most of his young life in the small town of Caledon, George moved around a lot with his family from town to town. Realising that his kids would need to go University, George’s father moved the family to Cape Town where he built a house in Rondebosch. However, with the Group Areas Act, they were forced from their home by the apartheid regime and had to move to Athlone, an area designated for Coloureds. At the time, George’s father, P.J. Philander, was the principle of Belgravia High School and an award winning Afrikaans poet.
P.J. had a passion for learning and made sure that his kids also developed the same passion. Despite apartheid and the family’s forced removal, P.J. always reminded his kids that race does not determine your abilities or the kind of person you will become.
After completing High School, George went to study applied mathematics and physics at the University of Cape Town where he earned his Bachelor of Science in 1962. After it became obvious that the apartheid government would not allow him to further his studies, George applied for a scholarship at Harvard University in the US where he completed his PhD in Applied Mathematics. Like his father had taught him, he did not let anyone tell him what he could and couldn’t be, and as a result, his CV grew into a list of the most prestigious scientific institutes in the world.
After completing his PhD, he became a post-doctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then became a research associate in the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Program at Princeton University, and was promoted to senior research oceanographer. He was eventually promoted to full professor and became the director of atmospheric and oceanic studies at Princeton University. He served as chair of the Department of Geosciences at Princeton University and was named the Knox Taylor Professor of Geosciences. He served as a consultant to the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland and was a professor at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France.
George was elected as a Fellow into the American Meteorological Society in 1986, the American Geophysical Union in 1991, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and in 2007, the University of Cape Town awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Science.
George has published over one hundred academic papers, nine chapters in books, and three books on such topics as El Niño, the Southern Oscillation, and global warming.
In 2007, he finally returned to South Africa and joined the University of Cape Town as a research professor.
The Vetlesen Prize prize that George received is because of his work on the event known as, El Nino.
El Nino basically refers to an event where the surface of the oceans becomes warmer than usual and may change the direction and the speed of the winds. This may not sound very important, but it is very important.
The El Nino event has been responsible for devastating droughts, floods, famine, outbreaks in fatal diseases, hurricanes, typhoons, and is even associated with massive increases in food prices. It has caused destruction all over the world. It has led to wars and the collapse of entire civilisations. It is even blamed for the French revolution. Because of how destructive El Nino is, it is important to know how it starts and that is exactly what George (and his partner) did. By figuring out how it starts, weather forecasters are able to spot when it will happen and countries are able to plan ahead so that it does not cause so much destruction.
More than 50 years ago, the apartheid government told George Philander that he could not become one of the best minds in the world. Luckily for the world, George did not listen.
Watch the video below as George and his partner tells us more about El Nino: