There is a fantastic show on BBC2 about space, “The Wonders of Space”, which reminded me of a story I had been commissioned to write for Newsweek two years ago but it never ended up being published…
Meet Mary Phoolo, Lesotho’s first cosmologist. The 30 year-old mother of one is finishing up her Masters’ degree at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal and will begin a PhD later in the year looking into how future cosmic microwave background datasets may be used to probe the early universe. It’s an amazing feat that Phoolo wants to focus on the study of the universe; there are no courses in astrophysics taught in her country and she never had any introduction to the field until her late 20s. Growing up under the wide-open skies of southern Africa, Phoolo knew there was something that intrigued her about the universe; she just never knew how to explore it. “I remember I used to wonder how the universe was [created], how the structures like planets and stars formed and so many other questions,” Phoolo recalls. “However I was not aware that there were people [actually] studying the universe.” But Cape Town’s African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) changed all that. She entered the postgraduate program planning to focus on epidemiology in order to help her nation control its booming HIV/AIDS problem. But taking a three-week module in astrophysics, she fell in love with cosmology. Her goal now is go home to Lesotho to teach university students the wonders of the universe. “I want to go back there and motivate them, get kids interested in this field that I love,” says Phoolo.
Getting students to fall in love with science and math is exactly what AIMS is aiming to do. The postgraduate center founded in 2003 by Neil Turok, who is chair of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, has so far graduated from the intensive 10-month program 160 students from 30 countries across Africa. The vast majority of students go on to do advanced degrees at places like Cambridge, Oxford and University of Paris-Sud. Later this week AIMS are announcing plans to expand the program across Africa—their goal is to open three new centers a year for the next five years. The first expansion center will be AIMS Abuja, which will open in the Nigerian capital in July. Stephen Hawking, a colleague and friend of Turok’s, will be at the launch to give his support along with Michael Griffin, the head of NASA, and David Gross and George Smoot, two Nobel Prize Laureates in Physics. The objective of AIMS is to bring together Africa’s best and brightest math and science graduates to develop their skills in a variety of disciplines. Turok feels confident that Africa is where the future Einstein may be hiding. “Science needs Africa,” says Turok. “When cultures are [exposed] to high level sciences they bring a wave of new ideas, enthusiasm, energy and different ways of looking at things.”
Africa is actually the home to the world’s first math discoveries; bones with notches for counting were found in a cave in Swaziland and date back to 1500BC and in the Congo bones with prime numbers less than 20 date back to 1000BC. “It’s time for Africa to reclaim Timbuktu,” says Bethuel Sehlapelo, director of the human capital and knowledge program in South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology, referring to the West African city’s rich scholastic history in math and science. “The way to do that is to create the right environment, infrastructure and to support international research endeavors [and] AIMS has been helping spread that across to different corners of Africa.” In order to pay for the spread, AIMS wants to set up a $150 million endowment over the next five years to permanently support the 15 centers. AIMS was initially started with funds from private donors and small donations from companies like Cambridge University Press and the Ford Foundation and now AIMS is part of the South African government’s budget. Turok says that though $150 million sounds like a lot of money, it actually represents less than one percent given annually to Africa. “Each center would graduate 750 highly skilled people every single year—with good international connections—and they will feed into governments, businesses and universities,” says Turok. “There will suddenly be a pool of talent and that will create a step change.”
The point of AIMS is to get African students who want to do postgraduate study up to par with other students from across the globe. “The West has not been interested in supporting high level education in Africa,” says Turok. “As a consequence the universities have gone down, they are isolated and they are under funded.” In Madagascar for example—a country that Turok says has an excellent level of math education—one of the universities designed for 2,500 students somehow crowds 23,000 on campus with up to 30 students shoved into classrooms the size of closets. Students who are lucky enough to get into AIMS—there is so much demand for the program these days that there is one space per five applicants—live on campus and spend up to 18 hours a day in lectures, doing research and lab work. The program is not focused around exams; students must successfully participate and complete the various three-week modules that are taught by visiting professors from around the globe. “We think of the fields we need, who is the best on this topic and we call them and ask them to teach,” Turok says. “Almost everyone says yes because it is an incredible opportunity to go to Africa to teach the best students from the entire continent.” Robert de Mello Koch, a professor in physics from South Africa’s Witwatersrand University, says teaching his course in electromagnetism at AIMS for the last four years has had a profound effect on him. “It is the pursuit of knowledge in a pure form,” he says. “There is a feeling [among them] that they are lucky to have this opportunity and there is a conviction that they can make a difference.”
There is also a conviction at AIMS that bringing students together from across the vast African landscape will also help break down stereotypes and create strong links in the math and science communities across the continent. “It is designed to be Pan-African in spirit,” says Turok. “To have that happen with students from Muslim, Francophone, Anglophone and Arabic cultures is significant because they [quickly] realize they can work together.” Full AIMS business plans have been developed for Ghana, Madagascar, Uganda and Sudan while Ethiopia, Egypt and Botswana are currently being explored as future AIMS sites. Turok admits that some may question why Sudan is a good choice for an AIMS center considering they are in the midst of a war Darfur. “The aim for AIMS in Sudan is to use math and science to overcome conflicts and be used as an example where people from different religions and ethnicities can work together,” he says. When Sudanese colleagues approached AIMS about setting up a center in bustling Khartoum, they were told that they would not be fundable unless the universities in Darfur and Juba were also brought in. They agreed and a joint venture looks likely between universities in Khartoum, Juba and Al-Fashir in Darfur. “It is important that we Africans contribute to the fields of science and math,” says Buthaina Adam, an AIMS graduate from western Sudan who is now pursuing a PhD in physics at the University of Cape Town. “In the near future many of us will not just be contributing to the math and science fields in our own countries but around the world.” Who knows, Lesotho could be the future hub for exploration of the big bad universe.