Education

Finding the next Einstein in Africa: Neil Turok's TED Prize wish on TED.com

Posted by: Tedstaff

Accepting his 2008 TED Prize, physicist Neil Turok speaks out for talented young Africans starved of opportunity: by unlocking and nurturing the continent’s creative potential, we can create a change in Africa’s future. Turok asks the TED community to help him expand the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences by opening 15 new centers across Africa in five years. By adding resources for entrepreneurship to this proven model, he says, we can create a network for progress across the continent — and perhaps discover an African Einstein. To brainstorm on this wish and get involved, visit TEDPrize.org >> (Recorded February 2008 in Monterey, California. Duration: 24:44.)

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It was an incredible surprise to me to find out that there was actually an organization that cared about both parts of my life. Because, basically, I work as a theoretical physicist, I develop and test models of the Big Bang, using observational data, and I’ve been moonlighting for the past five years with a project in Africa. And I get a lot of flak for this at Cambridge. People wonder, you know, how do you have time for this?, and so on. And so it was simply astonishing to me to find an organization that appreciated both those sides.

So I thought I’d start off by telling you a little bit about myself and why I lead this schizophrenic life. Well, I was born in South Africa, and my parents were imprisoned for resisting the racist regime. When they were released, we left and went as refugees to Kenya and then Tanzania. Both were very young countries and full of hope for the future. We had an amazing childhood, didn’t have any money, but we were outdoors most of the time. We had fantastic friends and we saw the wonders of the world, like Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti and the Olduvai Gorge.

Then we moved to London for high school, and after that, well there’s nothing much to say about that. It was rather dull. But I came back to Africa, at the age of 17, as a volunteer teacher to Lesotho, which is a tiny country, surrounded, at that time, by Apartheid South Africa.

Well, 80% of the men in Lesotho worked in the mines over the border, in brutal conditions. Nevertheless, I, as – as I’m sure – a rather irritating young white man coming to live with them in their village, I was welcomed with incredible hospitality and warmth. But the kids were the best part. Kids were amazing, extremely eager and often very smart. But I’m just going to tell you one story, which got through to me.

I used to try to take them outside as often as possible, to try to connect the academic stuff with the real world, and the kids weren’t used to that. But I took them outside one day and I said, “I want you to estimate the height of the building.” And I expected them to put a ruler next to the wall, size it up with a finger, and make an estimate of the height.

But there was one little boy, very small for his age. He was the son of one of the poorest families in the village, and he wasn’t doing that. He was scribbling with chalk on the sidewalk. And so, I said – I was annoyed – I said, “What are you doing? I want you to measure the height of the building.” He said, “OK. I measured the height of a brick, I counted the number of bricks and now I’m multiplying.”

Well, [laughter] I hadn’t thought of that one. And many other experiences like that happened to me. Another one is that I had met a miner. He was home on his three-month-long leave from the mines. Sitting next to him one day, he said, “There’s only one thing that I really loved in school.” And you know what it was? Shakespeare.

And he recited some to me.

And these and many similar experiences convinced me that there are just tons of bright kids in Africa, inventive kids, intellectual kids and starved of opportunity. And if Africa is going to get fixed, it’s by them, not by us.

Well, after – that’s the truth. Well, after Lesotho, I traveled across Africa before returning to England, so gray and depressing in comparison. I went to Cambridge, and there, I fell in love with theoretical physics.

Well, I’m not going to explain this equation, but theoretical physics is really an amazing subject. We can write down all the laws of physics in one line. And, admittedly, it’s in a very shorthand notation. And it contains 18 free parameters, which we have to fit to the data. So it’s not the final story, but it’s an incredibly powerful summary of everything we know about nature at a very basic level. And apart from a few, very important, loose ends, which you’ve heard about here, like dark matter and dark energy, this equation describes, seems to describe everything about the universe and what’s in it.

But there’s one puzzle still remaining, and this was put most succinctly by my primary teacher in Tanzania, who’s a wonderful Scottish lady, who I still keep in touch with, and she’s now in her eighties. And when I try to explain my work to her, she waved away all the details, and she said, “Neil, there’s only one question that really matters. What banged? Everyone talks about the Big Bang. What banged?” And she’s right. It’s a question we’ve all been avoiding.

The standard explanation is that the universe just sprang into existence, full of this strange kind of energy, inflationary energy, which blew it up. But the puzzle of why the universe emerged in that peculiar state is completely unsolved. So, I worked on that theory for a while, with Stephen Hawking and others. But then I began to explore another alternative. The alternative is that the Big Bang wasn’t the beginning. Perhaps the universe existed before the Big Bang, and the Bang was just a violent event in a preexisting universe.

Well, this possibility is actually suggested by the latest theories, the unified theories, which try to explain all those 18 free parameters in a single framework, which hopefully, will predict all of them.

And I’ll just share a cartoon of this here. It’s all I can convey. According to this theory, there are extra dimensions in space, not just the three that we’re familiar with, but at every point in the room there are more dimensions. And in particular, there’s one rather strange one, in the most elegant unified theories we have. The strange one looks likes this — that we live in a three-dimensional world. We live in one of these worlds, and I can really only show it as a sheet, but it’s really three-dimensional.

And a tiny distance away, there’s another sheet, also three-dimensional, and they’re separated by a gap. The gap is very tiny, and I’ve blown it up so you can see it. The gap is really a tiny fraction of the size of a tiny nucleus. I won’t go into the details of why we think the universe is like this, but it comes out in the math and the rules of physics that we know.

Well, I got interested in this, because it seems obvious to me that what happens when these two three-dimensional worlds collide? And if they collide, it would look a lot like the Big Bang, but slightly different than the conventional picture. The conventional picture of the Big Bang is a point, everything comes out at a point of infinite density, and all the equations break down. No hope of describing that.

In this picture you’ll notice, the Bang has been extended, it’s not a point. That the density is finite, and we have a chance of a consistency of equations. Ones that can describe the whole process.

So to cut a long story short, we’ve explored this alternative, we’ve shown that it can fit all of the data that we have about the formation of galaxies, the fluctuations of the microwave background. Furthermore, there’s an experimental way to tell this theory, apart from the inflationary explanation that I told you before. It involves gravitational waves. And in this scenario, not only was the Big Bang not the beginning, as you can see in this picture, it can happen over and over again. That maybe we live in an endless universe both in space and in time and there’ve been bangs in the past, and there’ll be bangs in the future, and that maybe we live in an endless universe.

Well, making and testing models of the universe is, for me, the best way I have of enjoying and appreciating the universe. We need to make the best mathematical models we can, the most consistent ones. And then we scrutinize them logically and with data. And we try to convince ourselves, we really try to convince ourselves that they’re wrong. That’s progress, when we prove ourselves wrong. And gradually we hopefully move closer and closer to understanding the world.

As I pursued my career, something was always gnawing away inside me. What about Africa? What about all those kids I left behind? Instead of developing, as we hoped, in the ’60s, things had gotten worse. Africa was gripped by disease, poverty and war. This is very graphically shown by the world map website and project. So the idea is to represent each country on a map, but to scale the area according to some quantity.

So, here’s just the standard area map of the world. By the way, Africa is very large. And the next map shows Africa’s GDP in 1960, around the time of independence for many African states. Now this is 1990 and then 2002 and here’s a projection for 2015. Big changes are happening in the world, but they’re not helping Africa. What about Africa’s population? The population isn’t out of proportion to its area, but Africa leads the world in deaths in often preventable causes: malnutrition, simple infections and birth complications. And then there’s HIV/AIDS, and then there’s death from war. OK, currently there’s 45,000 people a month dying in the Congo, in result of the war over coltan, diamonds and other things. It’s still going on.

What about Africa’s capacity to do something about these problems? Well, here’s the number of physicians in Africa, and here’s the number of people in higher education, and here’s, most shocking to me, the number of scientific research papers coming out of Africa. It just doesn’t exist scientifically.

And this was all very elegantly argued at TED Africa. That all the aid given has completely failed to put Africa on its own two feet. Well, the transition to democracy in South Africa, in 1994, was literally a dream come true to many of us. My parents were both elected to parliament, alongside Nelson and Whitney Mandela. They were the only other couple.

And in 2001, I took a research leave to visit them. And while I was busy working on, I was busy working on these colliding worlds, back in the day, I learned that there was a desparate shortage of skills, especially in mathematics skills, in industry, in government, in education.

The ability to make and test models has become essential, not only to every angle 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. Well, as a Cambridge professor, I had many contacts and to my astonishment they backed me 100 percent. They said, Go and do it, and we’ll come and lecture. And I knew it would be amazing fun to bring brilliant students from these countries where they don’t have any opportunities with the best lecturers in the world, who I knew would come, because of the interest in Africa. And put them together, and just let the sparks fly.

So we bought a derelict hotel near Cape Town. It’s an 80-room Art Deco hotel from the 1920s. The area was kind of seedy so we got an 80-room hotel for $100,000. It’s a beautiful building. We decided that we would refurbish it and then put out the word that we’re going to start the best math institute in this hotel. Well, the new South Africa is a very exciting country. And those of you who haven’t been there, you should go. It’s very, very interesting what’s happening. And we recruited wonderful staff, a highly motivated staff.

Another thing that’s good for us is the Internet. Even though the Internet is very expensive all over Africa, there are Internet cafés everywhere. And bright young Africans are desperate to join the global community, to be successful — and they’re very ambitious. They want to be the next Einstein.

And so when word came out that AIMS was opening, it spread very quickly by email and our website and we got lots of applicants. Well, we designed AIMS as a 24-hour learning environment, and it was fantastic to start a university from the beginning. You have to rethink what is the university for. And that’s really exciting.

So we decided for it to have interactive teaching. No droning on at the chalkboard. We emphasize problem-solving, working in groups, every student discovering their own potential and not chasing grades. Everyone lives in this hotel, lecturers and students, and it’s not surprising at all to find an impromptu tutorial at 1 AM. The students don’t usually leave the computer lab till 2 or 3 AM and they’re up again at 8 in the morning, for lectures, problem solving, it’s an extraordinary place.

We especially emphasize areas of great relevance to Africa’s development, because it’s in those areas that scientists working in Africa will have a competitive advantage. They’ll publish, be invited to conferences, they’ll do well, they’ll have successful careers.

And AIMS has done extremely well. Here’s a list of last year’s graduates, graduated in June, and what they’re currently doing, 48 of them. And where they are is indicated over here. And where they’ve gone. So these are all postgraduate students. And they’ve all gone on to masters’ and PhD degrees.

Five students can be educated at AIMS for the cost of educating one in the US or Europe. More important, the pan-African student body is a continual source of strength, pride and commitment to Africa. We illustrate AIMS’ progress by coloring in the countries in Africa. So here you can see behind this list. When a county is colored yellow, we’ve received an application, orange we’ve accepted an application and green a student has graduated.

So here is where we were after the first graduation in 2004. And we set ourselves a goal in turning the continent green. So there’s 2005, 6, 7, 8. (Applause) We’re well on the way achieving our initial goal. We had some of the students film at home before they came to AIMS.

[Video]

Tendi: My name is Tendi Mokobo. I have a Bachelors of Science with AIDS Education degree. I will be attending AIMS. My understanding of the cause is that it covers basically a lot. You know from physics to medicine, in particular epidemiology and mathematic modeling.

Neil Turok: So Tendi came to AIMS and did very well. And I’ll let her take it from there.

Tendi: … and I was a student at AIMS in 2003 and 2004. After leaving AIMS I went on to do a Masters in Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. After that I came to the Netherlands and I’m doing a PhD in Theoretical Epidemiology.

Professor: And she was working very independently and she communicates well with the epidemiologists, and all in all I have a very good PhD student from South Africa, so I’m glad she’s here.

Another student in the first year of AIMS was Shehu. And he’s shown here with his favorite high school teacher. And entering university in northern Nigeria. And after AIMS, Shehu wanted to do high-energy physics, and he came to Cambridge. He’s about to finish his PhD and he was filmed recently with someone you all know.

Shehu: And from there we will, hopefully, be able to make better predictions and then we compare it to the graph and also make some predictions.

Stephen Hawking: That is nice.

Neil Turok: Here are the current students at AIMS. There are 53 of them from 20 different countries, including 20 women. So now I’m going to get to my TED business. Well, we had a party. This is Africa. We have good parties in Africa. And last month, they threw a surprise party for me. Here’s somebody you’ve seen before.

I want to point out a few of the exceptional people in this picture. So we’re having a party, as you can see here, they’re completely eclipsing me at this point.
This is Ezra, she’s from Darfur. She’s a physicist, and somehow stays smiling, in spite of everything going on back home. But she wants to continue in physics and she’s doing extremely well.

This is Lydia. Lydia is the first-ever woman to graduate in mathematics in the Central African Republic, and she’s now at AIMS. So now let me get to the TED wish. Well, it’s not my TED wish, it’s our wish, as you’ve already gathered. And our wish has two parts: one is a dream and the other’s the plan. OK.

Our TED dream is that the next Einstein will be African. In striving for the heights of creative genius, we want to give thousands of people the motivation, the encouragement and the courage, and to obtain the high-level skills they need to help Africa. Among them will not only be brilliant scientists – I’m sure of that from what we’ve seen at AIMS – there will also be the African Gates and Pages of the future.

Well, I also said that we had a plan. And our plan is quite simple. AIMS is now a proven model, and now what we need to do is to replicate it. We want to roll out 50 AIMS centers in the next five years in Africa. Each of them will have a pan-African student body, but specialize in a different area of science. We want to use science to overcome the national and cultural barriers, as it does at AIMS. And we want to add elements to the curriculum. We want to add entrepreneurship and policy skills.

The expanded AIMS will be a coherent pan-African institution, and its graduates will form a powerful network, working together for peace and progress across the continent.
Over the last year we’ve been visiting sites in Africa, looking at the potential sites for new AIMS centers. And here are the ones we’ve selected. And each of these centers has a strong local team, each is in a beautiful place, an interesting place, which international lecturers will be happy to visit. And our partners across Africa are extremely enthusiastic about this. Everyone wants an AIMS center in their country.

And last November, the conference of all the African ministers of science and technology, held in Mombasa, called for a comprehensive plan to roll out AIMS, so we have political support right across the continent. It won’t be easy. At every site there will be huge challenges. Local scientist must play leading roles. and governments must be persuaded to buy in. Conditions are very difficult, but we can’t afford to compromise on those principles that make AIMS work.

And we summarize them this way: the institutes have got to be relevant, innovative, cost-effective and high quality. Why? Because we want Africa to be rich. Easy to remember the basic rules we need.

So just an ending, let me say the only people that can fix Africa are talented young Africans. By unlocking and nurturing their creative potential, we can create a step change in Africa’s future. Over time they will contribute to African development and to science in ways that we can only imagine. Thank you.

Comments (1)

  • Chris Markl commented on Mar 20 2008

    This is such a wonderful idea. I have had this dream about Africa for a long time. That Africa would inspire us, that innovations would be pouring out of the continent, and there would be no need for US foreign aid, or us NGOs to work on the continent. Every time I go to the developing world, i see a nation of people who are fully capable of solving not only their problems but ours as well. This is an amazing TED wish and it has inspired me in my own work.