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The Search for The Next Einstein in Africa

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Part of the MeerKAT array at a deep-space observatory in South Africa. This facility is a precurssor to the in-development Square Kilometre Array, the largest radio telescope ever built, spanning eight African countries. Image courtesy of SKA South Africa.

As a young man, theoretical physicist Neil Turok volunteered to teach at a primary school in the African country of Lesotho. One day, he asked his students to go outside and estimate the height of the building they were in. He expected the students to put their rulers against the wall, mark the ruler’s edge with their fingers, and walk the ruler upwards until they’d measured the entire height of the building. However, he noticed a student--one of the poorest in the class--off to the side scribbling on the pavement with chalk. Turok, annoyed, chided him for not doing as instructed. “But I am,” the young boy said. “I’ve measured the height of a brick, counted the number of bricks, and now I’m multiplying.”

This experience and many more like it convinced Turok, who was only 17 at the time, that Africa was full of bright, inventive, and creative kids who were starved of opportunity. He knew that even if they graduated from the university, the scope of their future was limited.

Turok himself was luckier. Although he grew up the son of poor, anti-apartheid activists— who were imprisoned and exiled to East Africa— today, at 58, he is a world-leading theoretical physicist and cosmologist. (The Hawking-Turok Instanton Theory he developed with Stephen Hawking describes the birth of an inflationary universe.)

Turok left Africa to pursue his education, becoming a professor at Princeton, then the Chair of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge, and, in 2008, was appointed the Director of the Perimeter Institute. But along his remarkable journey, something was always gnawing away inside him. “What about Africa?” he asked himself, “What about those kids I left behind?”

Building capacity

While visiting South Africa in 2001 (his parents had returned to serve in parliament alongside Nelson Mandela), Turok found his answer. Two years later, Turok established the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences or AIMS. The concept for the school was rather simple: the program would recruit Africa’s top mathematics and science students and bring in the world’s best lecturers to teach them.

For Turok, the goal of AIMS is to prepare young Africans for a life of science beyond the classroom. University graduates are confronted with the harsh reality of the scientific climate in Africa. According to the United Nations, the continent produces just 1.4% of the world’s scientific publications. In stark contrast to 3,900 professional and academic scientists per million people in the U.S., there are only 91 per million in Africa.

Through AIMS, Turok re-imagined graduate education. Its educational philosophy is geared toward creating problem solvers with a broad, math-based toolbox of skills. Students discover and maximize their own potential rather than chase after grades. At the heart of the institution is a 10-month, full-scholarship master’s program, which allows graduates to pursue doctoral programs within AIMS research centers or elsewhere. The institute even offers entrepreneurship classes and opportunities for internships with commercial companies.

AIMS is like no other school Africa has ever seen. Even the first center, near Cape Town, is housed in a renovated 1920’s Art Deco hotel and stands out among the colonial-style buildings of other universities. Instructors typically live on campus with students in an interactive, 24-hour learning environment, creating a unique university culture.

The institution is thriving; in recent years it has drawn world-class lecturers, including Nobel laureates and Fields Medal winners, as well as large grants from Google, TED, and the Ford Foundation. Since taking root in South Africa in 2003, AIMS has established five other centers in Senegal, Cameroon, Tanzania, Ghana, and most recently Rwanda.

AIMS is also seeing growth in its scientific output. Since 2010, the number of peer-reviewed publications by AIMS affiliates multiplied by a factor of eight, placing it in the top 20 academic institutions in Africa according to Nature Index. Additionally, the program has graduated more than 1,200 students who have gone on to join prestigious research institutions or work in industry. Perhaps more importantly for Turok’s vision though, 60% of alumni have remained in Africa, a sign that talent isn’t being drained from the homeland.

Looking to the Future

AIMS is propelling Africa onto the global scientific stage. While striving to close the continent’s STEM education deficit and build its scientific infrastructure from the bottom up, the institution is also empowering a new generation of Africans to dream big. Turok and others are optimistic these inspired young Africans will make groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

“I would claim,” Turok said in a 2013 TEDx talk, “that the best possible thing that could happen is that the next great discovery of the human mind on the scale of Einstein’s — a discovery which tells us about the basic nature of reality and changes the future, and creates the future — if that next discovery is made by an African.”

However intimidating the task of training “Einsteins” might appear, many African leaders believe that Africa has the pipeline to make it happen. The continent has a massive youth demographic that will only get larger. According to UNICEF, 40% of the world's youth will be African by 2050. Turok and AIMS believe that African scientists are uniquely positioned to transform scientific fields, just as a generation of Jewish scientists did when they gained entry into universities across Europe in the 19th Century.

The inclusion of cultures that have been historically marginalized in science can lead to a renewal of science. “The youth of Africa are incredibly aspirant,” Turok told BBC Radio Science. “They bring the kind of vigor that comes from feeling like you’re the first of your culture and your people to have the chance to do [science] seriously. There is absolutely no question we’re going to see some remarkable young people emerge in scientific fields in Africa in the next five to ten years.”

With Turok’s wish for an African Einstein, the Next Einstein Initiative was born. The Next Einstein Initiative aims to fundraise for 15 AIMS centers across Africa by 2023. However, the slogan “Next Einstein” has also served as an inspiration for young African scientists in other contexts.

“Not just because [Einstein] was a spectacular scientist, but also [because] he thought about the way we should care for social justice as well as science,” said South African cosmologist Amanda Weltman on BBC Discovery. “Einstein triggered completely new ideas and brought about revolution, [and] that's what we want to do. It's not necessarily to be [Einstein], but to be revolutionary and fearless.”

Turok agrees. He wants to create opportunities for the young scientists who will carry Africa into the modern era. He acknowledges that the continent has a lot of catching up to do in science and research. To this end, AIMS has already partnered with Rwandan president Paul Kagame on a major science research center called Quantum Leap Africa, in hopes of propelling Africa into the quantum age.

Turok believes a new generation of African scientists will pioneer scientific and technological tools to solve Africa’s complex health, energy, and growth challenges. However, if a young African genius happens to come up with the theory of everything as a result of AIMS and the Next Einstein Initiative, that would certainly be nice, too.

This feature won the 2016 Science & Society Writing Award of the Driskill Graduate Program in the Life Sciences (DGP). Written as part of a course bridging scientific issues and public policy, outstanding articles deserving of a wider readership are selected each year for publication in HELIX.

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