4/21/2016

Next Einstein From Africa

Back in 2008, South African physicist Neil Turok gave a speech in which he declared his wish that the next Einstein would be from Africa. 

It was a rallying call for investment in maths and physics research in Africa. The "Next Einstein" slogan became a mission for the organization Neil Turok had founded to bring Africa into the global scientific community: the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). 

That search for an African Einstein now has some results, with 15 "Next Einstein Fellows" and 54 "Next Einstein Ambassadors" announced at an event last month.

These are young African scientists, often leaders in their fields, working and studying in Africa.

"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," says the 36-year-old 

South African cosmologist Amanda Weltman (ABOVE), speaking to the BBC Discovery program.

Her work on the Chameleon field, a way to explain the accelerated expansion of the universe, is seen as a continuation of Einstein's work. 

"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," Dr Weltman adds.

When Neil Turok made his declaration, he wasn't thinking so much of a literal African Einstein, but of creating opportunities to nurture young scientific leaders who would challenge the stereotypes of Africa and champion its development through science.

"There is a huge youth demographic in Africa and this will get bigger; 40% of the world's youth will be African by 2050," he says. 

"Many scientists around the world are more than happy to come to Africa for a few weeks a year and share their knowledge and insights with the most able young Africans."

The apparent gap between studying maths or physics and Africa's needs - in public health and disease control, for example - might seem huge. But one branch of science can inform another. 

Thierry Zomahoun, the CEO of AIMS, cites the example of the west African Ebola outbreak, where local work on mathematical modelling of the virus might have slowed the spread of the disease at an earlier stage.

"It's urgent for mathematical epidemiologists to be trained on the continent, for lab technicians to be trained so that we don't have to invest billions of dollars paying expatriate technicians from France or the US to do the work that we could have done here," he said.

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