Stephen Hawking, who has devoted his career to discovering the origins of the universe, has made the journey to South Africa to join some of the world’s leading high-tech entrepreneurs and scientists who have backed the £75m plan to create Africa’s first postgraduate centers for advanced maths and physics, after the British government declined to provide funding.
“The world of science needs Africa’s brilliant talents and I look forward to meeting prospective young Einsteins from Africa,” said Hawking.
Hawking will be joined by eminent physicists and mathematicians
including two Nobel laureates in physics, David Gross and George Smoot,
and Michael Griffin, the head of Nasa.
Neil Turok, founder of the project and professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, where he is a close colleague of Hawking, said the aim of the centres was to “unlock and nurture scientific talent” across Africa. “Apart from an African Einstein, we want to find the African Bill Gates and the Sergey Brins and Larry Pages of the future,” said Turok, referring to the founders of Microsoft and Google.
The 15 new centers will be modeled on the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, which was founded by Turok in Muizenberg, near Cape Town, four years ago. It has produced 160 graduates from 30 African countries, many of whom have gone on to take science doctorates. Another 53 will graduate shortly.
Turok decided to push for 15 more Aims institutes after winning the £50,000 Technology, Entertainment and Design prize in America earlier this year. He donated the money to Aims. He has since been offered support potentially worth tens of millions of pounds. Google, the Gates Foundation and Sun Microsystems are among those that have expressed interest.
Turok and Hawking hope that Aims’s students will help to overturn the negative stereotypes of Africa that were recently given expression by James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA. Watson lost his job as director of the Cold Spring Harbor laboratories in America after suggesting that Africans were less intelligent than Europeans. A subsequent analysis of his own DNA showed that he had part-African ancestry.
“Watson’s views were simply ridiculous,” said Turok. “The quality of students we are seeing at Aims is extremely high. What they need is an opportunity to learn.”
Hawking’s keynote lecture is expected to be the highpoint of the ceremonies in Cape Town. When he gave a talk at the Caltech campus in Pasadena in the United States, he was wheeled out of the auditorium to a standing ovation and took a victory lap in his wheel-chair while the crowd shouted: “We love you, Stephen.”
Hawking is expected to repeat his call for a global effort to enable
humanity to colonize space, starting with the moon and then Mars.
Andrew Mitchell, shadow development secretary, was equally critical: “There is much more to Africa than poverty and starvation. This is an extremely important initiative and I’m going to see how the next Conservative government could support it.”
Posted by Casey Kazan.