Thebe Medupe

Thebe Medupe
Thebe Medupe
Credit: North West University
Used by permission

Occupation: Astrophysicist & Ethno-astronomer

Year born: 1973

Research Areas: Variable Stars


"When I was growing up and developing my own love of astronomy, all the books I found were about European scientists and European achievements, and since I didn’t see myself in those books, I began to wonder whether it’s true that our people are simply not capable of becoming scientists. Well, that’s a big fat lie, of course."

Source: The Christian Science Monitor


Early Life

Thebe was born in a rural village in north-west South Africa. He spent his childhood playing outside and sitting by the fire listening to his grandparents tell stories. Thebe went to school in the city of Mmabatho where he became interested in science. He saw Halley’s comet when he was 13 and this inspired him to build his own telescope. He learned how to make a telescope using household items from a book in his local library. Thebe used his telescope to observe the Moon and saw its craters, mountains and plains.

Thebe studied hard at science and maths at school. His hard work won him a trip to the UK to visit scientific institutions there, like the Greenwich Observatory. After school, he received a scholarship to study at the University of Cape Town. There, Thebe completed an undergraduate degree in physics along with a masters and PhD in astrophysics.

Career Highlights

After his PhD, Thebe stayed at the University of Cape Town as a research fellow. He is a researcher at the South African Astronomical Observatory and teaches at North West University, South Africa.

Thebe studied variable stars with strong magnetic fields. Variable stars give out different amounts of light over time. The light changes because of seismic waves inside the stars. Thebe used the seismic waves to learn about what the stars are made from. Thebe used telescopes all over the world to avoid gaps in the data due to daytime skies.

Thebe is interested in what different cultures and societies know about astronomy and how they use that knowledge. Thebe has published books on this topic of ‘ethno-astronomy’. Thebe worked with filmmakers to create Cosmic Africa. For this film, Thebe visited people across Africa to learn about astronomy in their cultures. This film showcases the achievements and traditions of Africa. It also celebrates Africa's input to our knowledge of the cosmos. Thebe has also written books on the topic.


Thebe is one of South Africa’s first black astronomers. Thebe supports young people in South Africa to work in or study science and technology if they choose to. Thebe teachers on the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme at the Uni of Cape Town. This aims to increase the number of people with a masters or PhD in astrophysics in South Africa.

Other Interests

Thebe is interested in the history of science in Africa. He is working on a project to search for references to science and astronomy in ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu. The project hopes to find out what scientific research was being carried out in Timbuktu over 400 years ago.