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Monday, May 12, 2008

Stephen Hawking in hunt for Africa's hidden talent

Professor Stephen Hawking, who has devoted his career to finding the origins of the universe, is to begin a new search – for Africa’s answer to Einstein.

Despite suffering from motor neurone disease which has left him almost completely paralysed, Hawking, 66, has made the journey to South Africa to launch the project today.

Some of the world’s leading high-tech entrepreneurs and scientists have backed the £75m plan to create Africa’s first postgraduate centres for advanced maths and physics, after the British government declined to provide funding.

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. Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s education minister, will also speak.

“The world of science needs Africa’s brilliant talents and I look forward to meeting prospective young Einsteins from Africa,” said Hawking.

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 centres will be modelled on the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (Aims) 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.

Among them is Buthaina Adam, whose mathematical skills shone out in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur province where she grew up. With a physics degree from the University of Khartoum, she hoped to become a nuclear physicist, but shortage of money and opportunities left her career on hold until she was offered a place at Aims in 2006.

“Aims gave me a life, opened doors for me,” said Adam, who hopes to return to Darfur and teach after completing a PhD.

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 this afternoon 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 colonise space, starting with the moon and then Mars. Turok’s hopes are more down to earth: he wants to persuade the British government to rethink its refusal to fund the Aims project.

“The Department for International Development spends £1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money on aid to Africa every year but there is precious little to show for it. The people who will make Africa rich are the brightest people because they will generate wealth,” Turok said.

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.”

The international development department said it preferred to focus on projects to fight poverty.

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