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The Next Einstein

AN-AIMS10It’s been a cynical November for followers of Canadian politics, but fortunately, a few of us in this country are recognizing an important milestone currently taking place across the Atlantic. The African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) is marking its tenth anniversary this year, and if you’re a citizen of Canada, you can pat yourself on the back: you’ve helped its revolutionary program more than you even realize. Here’s the story.

Back in 2003, a genius (literally) named Neil Turok –– the Chair of Mathematical Physics in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, who worked with, among others, Stephen Hawking –– decided to start a side project: a highly-advanced academic institute based in his home country.

The interesting detail: his home country is South Africa.

Turok knew that his beloved homeland (and continent) faced great challenges, and that solving these problems could not be done only by people overseas. Despite any negative stereotypes, he believed that Africa was (is) full of hugely intelligent young people, but because of the limited educational infrastructure on the continent, many of those individuals had to go abroad for their higher education.

What might happen if those students could stay closer to home, but still learn at a world-class advanced institute? What if some of the best teachers on the planet went to Africa to lecture? What if –– what if –– the next universe-bending theory of physics came from the mind of a young genius… working in South Africa, or Ghana, or Senegal?

In case anyone takes offense to me saying ‘poor black kid’, I’m just re-posting this photo of (young) me with my parents and Great-Grandfather, Arnim Rouse.

Imagine how that sort of revelation could turn typical prejudices about Africa on their head. Imagine how much of an inspiration a home-based genius could be for Africans seeking to chart a new course for their future. Imagine what an eye-opener it would be for so many of us, if some poor black kid proved to be even smarter than Matt Damon was in that movie with Robin Williams.

Many African aid programs send humanitarian supplies to the continent, and no doubt this support is vital. But the old adage about teaching someone to fish begs the question: isn’t there more we can do than simply sending bags of rice? There is. And Turok did it.

In 2003, the AIMS Cape Town campus was opened, and quickly became a huge success. By all accounts, the place is an aspiring researcher’s dream: a 24-hour learning environment (1:00 AM seminars for young geniuses who would rather spend the night unmaking the universe, than snoring), with a collaborative instructive process that emphasizes building knowledge, not chasing grades. Students from across Africa are welcomed, and have graduated with great success. Interesting fact: five African students could be educated at AIMS for the cost of educating just one in the United States.

By 2008, this model was proven, so Turok gave a TED talk advocating the next step: to spread AIMS centers across the continent. His notion was that each campus could have its own specialization, but a similar approach, giving different countries the academic weight they needed to draw world-class teaching talent:

This idea won a $1 million TED prize, and the funding went straight into the project… but that money could only go so far. Particularly once the global recession set in, finding backers became a challenge. Fortunately, Neil Turok had by this time left Cambridge… and come to Canada.

In October of 2008, Turok accepted the post as Director of the Perimeter Institute, here in Waterloo. If you’re not familiar, Perimeter is the advanced theoretical physics institute where Stephen Hawking spent the summer of 2010 –– an impressive place to say the very least. As Perimeter’s Director, Turok knew his local Member of Parliament, and in a fortuitous meeting, he explained the whole AIMS plan.

At the time, I was a Communications Consultant on that MP’s staff: it was Peter Braid, who I still class as a friend. He was instantly enthusiastic about supporting AIMS, becoming a strong advocate… and very soon after, Canada’s Prime Minister was too. Believe me, there was no illusion of this project being some kind of domestic vote-getter –– money was going overseas during a recession –– but it was a brilliant program, and the right thing to do… so it was done.

I was in the room that summer when the Prime Minister, joined by Stephen Hawking, announced that AIMS would receive $20 million from the Government of Canada, for the Next Einstein Initiative. It was a very, very good day. Of course, it wasn’t reported at all in Canada –– every media member I spoke to genuinely thought it was brilliant, but it couldn’t compete for air time with whichever scandals were in fashion that week. Like a lot of good projects, it got buried by the bluster and theater of politics… but either way, the money flowed. And it was just the beginning.

In a speech given last week to recognize AIMS’ tenth anniversary, Canada’s Governor General, David Johnston (himself a Waterloo resident in the summer of 2010, and named GG within weeks of this AIMS announcement) pointed out that the UK followed Canada’s lead, dedicating a further $29 million to the Next Einstein Initiative. Canadians can proudly say that we were the first overseas government to support this project, but what’s most important is that we brought our friends.

Now AIMS has opened three of its new centers –– Ghana, Senegal, and Cameroon –– with more to come… and the future is bright.

While we in North America might lament the waning of our collective work ethic, and fear a dire future as lives of comfort erode our drive to excel, the young minds in Africa are just getting started. I fully believe a new generation of world-leading thinkers will emerge from that continent –– the continent which one branch of my own family tree called home. It will take hard work, determination, and no shortage of creativity, but it will happen.

And then, one day, everyone will know about AIMS –– know how the efforts of good people around the world helped restore to African students the opportunities they should always have had: to be as brilliant as they can be, in the place they call home.

Happy tenth anniversary, AIMS.

Oh, AIMS, one favor to ask: in The Jupiter Patrol, we establish that the smartest scientist in 2232 is Forrest Douglas, an African man with a giant gray afro, who’s idolized by our hero, Charlie Peters. When the next Einstein is found, could he or she maybe get a picture wearing a ‘Forrest Douglas’ name tag and a crazy gray wig, holding a sign that says Told You So? Just asking.