Nurturing an African Einstein

Professor Neil Turok’s goal is to unlock and nurture mathematical and scientific talent across Africa, so that within our lifetime we are celebrating an African Einstein. On the 10 April, at the 2014 graduation ceremony, Rhodes University proudly conferred an Honorary Doctorate on him.

Johannesburg-born cosmologist and theoretical physicist Professor Neil Turok spends his time breaking new ground in our understanding of the beginning of the universe.

Partnering with fellow researchers in his field, like Stephen Hawking, he is currently using holography to study the Big Bang singularity that will in all probability produce new theories about the beginning of time.

What is refreshing about Prof Turok is that between deciphering the universe, he jogs and plays the guitar. He enjoys writing his own songs and he’s a fan of Arcade Fire and Imogen Heap.

When you speak to him, what he most wants to talk about is not theoretical physics but about South Africa and the advancement of science and mathematics on the African continent.

He’s intent on nurturing brilliance here of the order of the person who first opened the doors of the universe for us: theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. Prof Turok believes it is absolutely possible to achieve:

“To appreciate this we need to look at how a man like Einstein arose. He came from a historically disadvantaged people – the Jewish people in Europe – who were excluded from studying subjects like engineering, mathematics or physics in Europe until the middle of the 19th century. Only certain trades were thought to be appropriate for Jews. This is similar to the circumstances in which black people found themselves in Africa in the 20th century.”

When Jewish people were finally admitted to study all subjects at university, they were extremely motivated to prove what they could do. Aiding their ambitions was their background in Jewish culture, which greatly values learning and scholasticism.

“This generation of young Jewish people revolutionised physics in the early 20th century,” explains Prof Turok.

“Amongst them was a brilliant young physicist called Einstein who saw things in a non-traditional way, who didn’t accept the standard wisdom and saw the contradictions that others failed to see clearly.

“He changed the world. He discovered the principles of nuclear and quantum theory that govern everything at a microscopic level and he discovered relativity, which explains how the universe evolves.”

The beauty of all this is this is that Prof Turok doesn’t just talk about nurturing similar brilliance here in South Africa and Africa, he is actively doing something about it.

Formerly the Chair of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, and currently the Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Ontario, Canada, he is drawing on his global network to advance postgraduate mathematics and science education on our continent.

In 2003 he founded the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Cape Town and the Next Einstein Initiative (NEI), which aims to roll out 15 such institutes across Africa.

It all started with the institute in Muizenberg, Cape Town, in 2003 and three others have since followed – in Senegal, Ghana and Cameroon. AIMS-Tanzania is due to open this year.

“Africa is full of super-talented young people, many from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, and we decided to bring a group of pan-African students together and give them the best Masters-level postgraduate teaching in mathematics and science we could,” he explains.

Step onto the AIMS campus in Muizenberg – situated in a renovated 1920 art deco hotel – and you will experience Prof Turok’s vision firsthand in the excitement, energy and motivation of the students.

They are representative of South Africa and Africa’s top science and mathematics graduates and you can tangibly feel a new scientific culture at work.

To get into the ten-month AIMS Masters by coursework programme, students have to get top marks in their undergraduate and Honours degrees.

Over 1200 applications are received each year. The AIMS centre in South Africa admits 50-60 students every year while the centres in Senegal, Ghana and Cameroon admit 30-50.

There’s no slacking or secret smoking and drinking at the back of the building. It’s not tolerated in this 24/7 learning environment where the students and lecturers live together, eat together and learn together. The students call it ‘the house of no sleep’ but they would not swap it for any other educational institution.

“We have a pool of over 500 volunteer lecturers from all over the world who teach at AIMS for three weeks a year,” says Prof Turok who himself teaches at one of the four existing centres each year.

The students are visibly happy and healthy and there is a strong sense of safety and trust. Laptops are left unattended in the computer lab during breaks because they know they won’t be stolen. Women students feel secure and at ease in the AIMS environment because a strong culture of mutual respect is engendered as part of the programme.

No less than 30% of women are selected in every cohort and AIMS is highly proactive about recruiting women students.

The students support the idea of strict environment where smoking, drinking or drugging is not permitted. There are cameras throughout campus to maintain the sense of order and safety, with the students’ full blessing.

In addition to maths and sciences, students are schooled in a range of communication skills to help them develop into well-rounded individuals who have every chance of succeeding

“They work like hell for the ten months they are at AIMS because they know that from here doors will open and they will be able to do their Doctorates at the best universities in the world. 250 PhDs are being completed through AIMS as we speak,” says Prof Turok.

The students have exceeded their expectation and they have seen several students with extreme abilities come through AIMS.

“They astonish us with their ability to formulate and solve mathematical problems – these are genius levels. Whether they become an Einstein … the future will tell,” says Prof Turok.

The problem faced by many of the students from financially impoverished backgrounds is familiar: there is huge pressure on them to go into financially lucrative professions to help their families.

“Some of our top students have gone into financial mathematics, one has joined the Barclays Bank Financial Modeling Group in London. It isn’t our goal to support the corporate or banking environment there but we ask that when they make a fortune they, in turn, fund scholarships for other AIMS students. The culture amongst the alumni is very strong and ten years from now the AIMS alumni want to be funding AIMS.”

Where South African students are concerned, the first few years of AIMS saw very few South African students being enrolled. The students came from many other African countries including Ghana, Uganda, Cameroon, Nigeria, Sudan and the Congo.

“When the AIMS programme started, maths and science schools education in South Africa was rated among the worst in Africa. We are finally starting to see the numbers improving,” says Prof Turok.

Of the 60 students currently studying at AIMS’ Cape Town, 10 are South African. In November 2013 the first South African ever won a distinction at AIMS. He is Matthews Sejeso from Taung in the North West Province who is now doing his PhD in mathematics at Wits University. “He is a remarkable individual who has overcome many difficulties,” says Prof Turok.

Sejeso is the recipient of the highest scholarship awarded by AIMS for future study: the Ben and Mary Turok Award for Excellent Achievement, donated by Prof Turok in honour of his parents who were anti-apartheid activists within the ANC. Police raids were a regular event in the Turok Johannesburg home when Prof Turok was a little boy.

“My father was a land surveyor and my mother was a health programme administer. Both of them were imprisoned for opposing apartheid. When I was three years old my father was imprisoned for three-and-a-half years in jail, and when I was five my mother was imprisoned for six months. I lived with my grandmother and I was not allowed to visit them,” he recalls.

When Ben was released in 1966 after serving the full three-and-a-half years, he escaped re-arrest by fleeing South Africa. The Turok family lived in exile in Tanzania as political refugees.

Throughout their lives Ben and Mary Turok emphasised education as the key to liberation on a personal and national level in South Africa. Prof Turok has followed in their footsteps, and his daughter Ruby is currently attending Oberlin College in Ohio – the first college in North America to admit women and black people.

“Given that I am from South Africa, and I frequently visit, it is very important for me that South Africa succeeds. It’s one of the most exciting countries in the world because it’s a new, multiracial democracy, with the whole world closely watching what happens. This strongly motivated me to make a contribution through the work we do at AIMS because it is vital that education in South Africa significantly improves if the country is to succeed.”

“What deeply bothers me is that currently there is a scarcity of leaders of the same quality as Mandela and his generation, with their positive vision and commitment to South Africa. The country is going through a difficult period because the second generation of leaders are less visionary and less capable of inspiring people to think positively about the future.”

He specifically refers to the “failures in dealing with crime” and “the education system, which to a large degree, is not giving young people the training and opportunities they deserve”.

“I am not seeing sufficient determination to solve these problems and it is very sad that the right initiatives aren’t being put in place – such as top quality teacher training, which is essential,” says Prof Turok.

“In maths and science, for example, we are not finding anything near sufficient numbers of teachers being trained, and for this there is no possible excuse. The motivation amongst young South Africans to advance themselves is tremendous; and the motivation amongst leading educationalists the world over to assist with teaching and training in South Africa, is significant. But government is not being proactive and not taking advantage of all this motivation and support.“

“I try to take every opportunity to share with the Ministers in the Department of Education here that there are solutions, and there are opportunities but they require out-of-the-box thinking and committed support,” says Prof Turok.

“My core belief is that the only people who can build a bright future for Africa are talented young Africans. By unlocking and nurturing their educational and creative potential, we can create a significant change in South Africa and Africa’s future.”