"We want the next Einstein to be African"


For the South African physicist and UCLouvain Honorary Doctor Neil Turok, it is in Africa that the university has the best chance to reinvent itself.

You founded the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), Africa’s first network of centres for excellence in mathematical sciences. What was your inspiration?

Neil Turok: When I was 18, I was lucky to teach in a primary school in Lesotho. The students were so bright but had no opportunity. That stuck with me. When I became a professor at Cambridge and took my daughter to see her grandparents in Cape Town, my parents challenged me to do something for South Africa. I could only think of starting a centre for teaching maths. I saw that Africa has tonnes of young people motivated to learn, that international scientists were willing to volunteer in order to draw them to science. I just put those things together, in a very naïve way, with no idea of international development policies. I wanted something interdisciplinary, better than any Western university course because we had to help Africans get quickly from lagging behind to the cutting edge. My father found a building, my entrepreneur brother hired a business planner, and I turned into a fundraiser. We targeted Africa’s million graduates per year, almost none of whom have any opportunity. AIMS’s principle is: give them their best ever learning experience, in Africa, among Africans, with Africans in charge, and an international volunteer faculty, and they’ll remember their time so fondly that they’ll come back. We now have six centres, in South Africa, Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania and Rwanda, 30 international lecturers per year, a pan- African student body from 50 countries. In the next ten years a wave of Africans will enter machine learning, AI and engineering.

What is the AIMS Next Einstein Initiative?

N.T.: We realised we wouldn’t survive with just one centre in Cape Town. The chance to expand came when I won the 2008 TED Prize. Just before that, at a Cape Town lecture, I showed a photo of Einstein, explained how he transformed science and said, ‘I hope one of you does what Einstein did.’ The next day a master’s student from Darfur gave a presentation to a donor and said, ‘We want the next Einstein to be African’ – she really impressed the donor! The TED Prize involves making a wish, so when they called, I knew what mine was. The wish is supported by a plan to expand to 15 AIMS centres across Africa. The Canadian and UK governments each gave us $20 million, the MasterCard Foundation funded us, and Google and Facebook fund a state-of-the-art machine learning and AI master’s programme with the world’s best lecturers.

What difficulties does AIMS face?

N.T.: Keeping it funded. Donors are slow to grasp that investing in young people and their skills is the best thing you can do for the continent to take off economically. Another huge hazard is Western donors with their own agendas. I think one reason AIMS succeeded is through my own childhood in Africa and my parents’ involvement in the anti-apartheid liberation movement, I was raised with an awareness and the respect. Every AIMS centre is locally owned and run, Africans call the shots, lecturers fly in for three weeks, then fly out – that’s important. That’s across the whole network. Our president and CEO is based in Rwanda and leads our expansion. This is reinventing the university and Africa is the best place to do it because the students are more numerous and motivated than anywhere else, the problems are bigger than anywhere else, therefore the impact of tackling them will be greater. Africa’s a divided continent, the borders make no sense. Integration is crucial. We’re a catalyst. Human progress has always been driven by mathematics, physics and basic sciences. We scientists are happy to be the pioneers of Africa’s integration.

Lee Gillette
Freelance journalist

> nexteinstein.org

Crédit photo : Jacky Delorme

Article paru dans le Louvain[s] de mars-avril-mai 2019