The ‘Next Einstein’ could come from Africa

 Theoretical physicist Neil Turok, speaking on how boosting math and science education throughout the continent can help alleviate problems in Africa.

Theoretical physicist Neil Turok, speaking on how boosting math and science education throughout the continent can help alleviate problems in Africa.

Eight years ago, while accepting the 2008 TED Prize, physicist Neil Turok gave a speech in which he issued a challenge: To bring Africa into the global scientific community. “Our TED dream is that the next Einstein will be African,” he told his audience, to much applause.

It looks like he may be getting his wish.

At a meeting in March in Dakar, Senegal, the Next Einstein Forum introduced its new class of 15 Next Einstein Fellows as well as 54 Next Einstein Ambassadors. These fellows and ambassadors are scientists from African countries with PhDs and other advanced degrees in a wide range of scientific fields. They are working, teaching, and studying in Africa and beyond, and the group hopes that these will be Africa’s new generation of scientific leaders. The NEF Global Gathering, as the meeting was called, had people from 80 countries, including all 54 countries in Africa. The 1,000 attendees represented more than 100 organizations from all over the world. The fellows continue their lines of research, and the ambassadors represent their country at NEF meetings.

A South African institute that Turok founded in 2003 joined with partners from industry, academia, African governments, and other funding groups to establish the Next Einstein Initiative. That led to the founding of the Next Einstein Forum, in association with a German philanthropic group, Robert Bosch Stiftung, founded by an industrialist and inventor of the same name. According to its website, the Next Einstein Forum is “a platform that brings together leading thinkers in science, policy, industry and civil society in Africa to leverage science to solve global challenges.”

It’s a continent that needs a lot of intervention. Seven of the 10 countries most at risk from climate change are in Africa, causing flooding, drought, decreased water supply and farming, and even security threats, according to 350Africa.org. As if that’s not enough, there are high threats of terrorism from the Islamic State, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, and related subgroups.

Although Africa’s rate of extreme poverty—defined as living on less than $1.25 per day—fell from 56 percent in 1990 to 43 percent by 2012, sub-Saharan Africa still remains in deep poverty. “The percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day in sub-Saharan Africa … is more than twice as high as any other region,” according to the Pew Research Center. Three out of four of the world’s poorest countries are in Africa. Most countries in Africa have among the fewest doctors per 10,000 people than anywhere else in the world. Africa leads the world in deaths from often preventable causes like malnutrition, simple infections, and birth complications. Seventy percent of all new HIV/AIDS cases are in sub-Saharan Africa. And the amount of scientific research done in Africa, by Africans, remains the lowest in the world.

So how are the 15 new Next Einstein Fellows going to tackle these problems?

First, let’s take a look at Neil Turok, a South African by birth. His family moved to Tanzania and Kenya after his parents were released from prison in South Africa for fighting apartheid. The family eventually made its way to London, where he finished school, earning a PhD in theoretical physics, and started teaching at the University of Cambridge. But his parents returned to South Africa and served in the South African Parliament with Nelson Mandela. When Turok visited them in 2001, he “learned that there was a desperate shortage of skills, especially mathematical skills, in industry, in government, in education” all over the continent.

So Turok founded the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences, or AIMS, in Cape Town in 2003. Its aim is to recruit students from all over Africa and train them in math and science to find solutions for the continent’s problems. As he said in a 2008 TED talk describing the need for such a school:

The ability to make and test models has become essential,not only to every single area of science today,but also to modern society itself.And if you don’t have math, you’re not going to enter the modern age.So I had an idea. And the idea was very simple.The idea was to set up an African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, or AIMS.And let’s recruit students from the whole of Africa,bring them together with lecturers from all over the world,and we’ll try to give them a fantastic education.

AIMS now has centers in Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, and Tanzania as well as South Africa, and Turok hopes eventually to have 15 centers in all. AIMS has 748 graduates from 42 African countries, and 30 percent of them are women. AIMS receives private corporate and foundation money, but it is set up to receive half of its funding from the governments of the countries in which the centers are based. The institute offers a tuition-free year of post-graduate study that awards graduates a master’s degree in mathematical sciences. It also has a Women in STEM Initiative.

Turok is now director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. In this 2008 TED talk, he described how he started AIMS, starting at about the 12-minute mark, building “the best math institute in Africa” in an old, seedy hotel in Cape Town. Turok also talked about his own work in theoretical physics studying the big bang theory and beyond. Theoretical physics is way beyond my expertise, so I enjoyed his line quoting one of his old math teachers in Tanzania: “Neil, there’s only one question that really matters. What banged?”

(If you’ve never listened to a TED talk—of which more than 2,100 are available online—TED stands for technology, entertainment, and design. The group offers a daily video podcast of talks and performances from some of the world’s leading global scientists, thinkers, business leaders, etc, all in 18 minutes or less. The TED Prize, by the way, is awarded annually “to an individual with a creative, bold vision to spark global change. By leveraging the TED community’s resources and investing $1 million in a powerful idea, the TED Prize supports one wish to inspire the world each year.”)

The Next Einstein Initiative chooses its NEF Fellows as scientists and technologists who “must be passionate about raising Africa’s science profile and be able to captivate both scientific and non-scientific audiences.” Let’s meet a few of these Next Einstein Fellows, all 42 years old or younger and all with doctoral degrees and successful research records, and see what they’re working on as part of their “Einstein Challenge:”

There’s Evelyn Gitau from Kenya. Her PhD studies in cellular immunology focused on changes in protein levels as markers of severe disease. As 40 to 50 percent of infectious diseases are undiagnosed in sub-Saharan hospitals, Gitau hopes to “develop cheap, point-of-care diagnostic methods that can better stratify malnourished children, to inform on alternative clinical management for those that remain at risk of death due to infection despite nutritional rehabilitation,” according to her bio on the NEF website.

There’s also Ghada Bassioni from Egypt. With a PhD in chemistry, Bassioni is already on the faculty of Ain Shams University in Cairo and has been a leader in the Women in Science working group of the Global Young Academy. She plans to spearhead initiatives around chemical safety and the use of green chemistry. She hopes to use interdisciplinary approaches to solve societal challenges like fresh water supply.

Axel Ngonga is from Cameroon. Ngonga has a PhD in computer science, and his main area of research is semantic web technologies. He plans to develop an equal-opportunity data landscape for Africa and “hopes to create efficient approaches for the time efficient processing of Big Data at low cost that will facilitate the development of intuitive information systems for domains such as bio­medicine, agriculture and education.”

Mohlopheni Jackson Marakalala is from South Africa, with a PhD in chemical pathology. He is currently a research fellow in immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard School of Public Health, where he is working to develop better therapeutic and diagnostic tools to fight tuberculosis and other HIV-related opportunistic infections. His Einstein Challenge is to “discover new therapeutic and diagnostic tools to combat infectious diseases mostly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Amanda Weltman also is from South Africa and another theoretical physicist, earning her PhD with studies in string theory and theoretical cosmology. She is already well-known for proposing the Chameleon field—a particle that could be responsible for causing the observed accelerated expansion of the universe. The cosmologist is also somewhat of an international celebrity in the science world, having been the subject of two cover features in New Scientist and a profile in Nature.

“Einstein is a natural, easy role model for people to look at—not  just because he was a spectacular scientist, but also he thought about the way we should care for social justice as well as science,” Weltman said on the BBC Discovery program, which broadcast from the NEF Global Gathering. “Where Einstein triggered all these completely new ideas and brought about revolution, that’s what we want to do. It’s not necessarily to be that person, but to be revolutionary and fearless.”

At the end of the NEF Global Gathering in March, the group issued a 20-point “Dakar Declaration.” Among its aims were to increase investment in science and technology; to prioritize STEM education throughout Africa, especially for female students; and to develop intra-African science partnerships.

einsteinBesides forming his theory of relativity, winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, being named Time magazine’s “Person of the Century” in 1999, and receiving other honors and having other influences too numerous to mention, Albert Einstein is remembered for his writings. He published more than 300 scientific papers and 150 non-scientific works, and many of his quotations hang in labs and academic offices worldwide. A sign in his office at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study had one of his quotations: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Perhaps the new Next Einstein fellows and ambassadors will be inspired by another of Einstein’s quotes:

Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.

Originally published on Daily Kos, April 10, 2016.

2 Comments on “The ‘Next Einstein’ could come from Africa

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