By ROWAN PHILP
Most people’s lists of critical priorities for Africa would feature safe water sources, primary healthcare, basic education and jobs.
How about Ivy-league tuition in quantum theory and mathematical physics? Not so much?
In fact, a project is now being rolled out across the continent in the belief that it’s precisely those arcane things that are needed to jump-start Africa’s development.
Called the “Next Einstein Initiative” (NEI), handsomely funded centers for post-graduate math and physics training — featuring sometimes Nobel Prize-level lecturers — have been launched in Ghana, South Africa and Senegal. A fourth center is due to open in Cameroon. Ultimately, African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) will be established in 15 African countries, the brainchild (or brain explosion) of one of Stephen Hawking’s chief collaborators.
Dr. Neil Turok, a native of South Africa, is literally hunting for African Einsteins, Newtons and Teslas in hopes that such an ambitious search will also throw up job-creating pioneers like Tim Berners-Lee, Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin.
In an interview, Turok told AFK Insider that while global aid and steadily growing economies struggle to push African development from the bottom, cutting edge research will pull from the top.
Or – at the very least – with the number of scientific research papers having plummeted in Africa in the past 40 years, it might stop the rot.
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Turok further made this prediction: that young African geniuses would “do for global science and technology what Jewish geniuses did” at the turn of the 20th century, when, collectively, they paved the way for modern electronics and the digital age. “In the late 19th century, when Jewish people were finally allowed to study science and technology degrees at European universities, they revolutionized science and (changed) the world,” he said. “Something very special happens in science when different cultures bring fresh perspectives, and I expect these very talented Africans to do the same.”
The pilot center – housed in a once-derelict, art deco hotel in Cape Town – has already graduated 442 master’s students since its launch in 2003. Some of them now work on the Large Hadron Collider experiment in Switzerland and others at the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. – but, crucially, over 60 percent continue to research, innovate and teach in Africa. Many are using advanced modelling theory to track epidemics and markets in Africa.
Tens of millions of dollars in funding have come from a combination of local government departments, Google grants and the Canadian government, with celebrity fundraisers like Bono recruited to seek further support.
But can such an investment gamble be justified, given Africa’s life-and-death needs?
In an interview, Barry Green, director of AIMS in Cape Town, argued that the program was a bargain at three times the price. First, he said advanced math tuition provides problem-solving tools and conceptual awareness, which graduates can apply to any field they enter in Africa. Green also makes the winning point that math costs virtually nothing in terms of equipment overheads for research and tuition.