TED2008: Neil Turok, finding the African Einstein

Last year’s second winner was former President Bill Clinton, whose wish was to scale up a healthcare system that’s been pioneered in Rwanda. TEDsters associated with AMD, Sun and Nokia visited a healthcare center and discovered a village that lacks running water, but has an open-source medical records system. Amy Novogratz, the administrator of the TED prize, refers to the trip as one of her best experiences with TED, and an experience that made her feel. It’s not entirely clear how far this project has gone, but clearly there are amazing minds working on the problems.

The second prize winner this year is the remarkable scientist and educator, Neil Turok. Turok is a cosmologist at Cambridge, but he’s got an amazing side project – he’s built an amazing math academy in Capetown that provides advanced training for the most promising young African mathematicians.

Turok was born in South Africa. His father was imprisoned for resisting the apartheid regime, and his family moved to the young nations of Kenya and Tanzania. “We saw the wonders of the world, Kilimanjaro, the Ulduvai Gorge…” He went to high school in London, but came back as soon as he could, becoming a student teacher in Lesotho when he was 17.

His students in Lesotho amazed him with their creativity. Asking students to estimate the height of a building, he discovered a young man measuring the height of a brick and counting bricks, getting an extremely accurate measurement. The adults amazed him as well – the poor miner who told him about his love of Shakespere. “If Africa is going to get fixed, it’s these people, not us, who are going to fix it.”

Turok talks briefly about his work in cosmology. “All we know in physics can be expressed in a single equation.” Unfortunately, that equation has 18 free parameters. In his work with Stephen Hawking, Turok has attempted to understand the big bang – he tells us that he’s still in regular tough with his primary school maths teacher, a Scottish woman who taught him in Tanzania. She periodically asks him, “What banged?”

Turok’s theory is that the big bang wasn’t a singularity – it was a collision between two three-dimensional realities, which parallel each other, separated by a tiny gap, a small fraction of the size of a nucleus. If those two worlds intersect, “it looks a lot like the big bang.” But if there’s a three-dimensional intersection of worlds, there’s no singularity, and the equations don’t break down – we can support all the data we have on background radiation. If this theory is right, “we’ve had bangs in the past, and will hae bangs in the future – we have an endless universe.”

Despite his success, Turok was haunted by the question, “What about Africa?” He shows us some of the painful statistics of the continent, visualized with maps from Worldmapper. Africa leads the world in deaths from preventable causes, and deaths from war. It trails the world in GDP. And it has huge limitations as far resources to solve these problems – tiny populations of physicians, educators and scientists. “As was very eloquently argued at TED Africa in Arusha, aid has completely failed to put Africa on its own two feet.”

Turok’s parents were both elected to South Africa’s first post-apartheid parliament – the only couple other than Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Turok took a leave to visit South Africa in 2001 and realized the nature of the desperate skill shortage. So he bought a derelict hotel in Cape Town with 80 rooms, for $100,000, and he founded AIMS – the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. He invited lecturers from all over the world, and students from all over continent… and they came. In part, it helped that the hotel was near the beach. It also helps that Turok is an amazing and passionate man whose enthusiasm is contagious.

In AIMS, the professors and students live together, which means that there are impromptu tutorials at 1am. There’s a strong emphasis on skills that are relavent to Africa, including epidemeology and financial mathematics. He walks us through the life stories of a few of his students – they’ve ended up in amazing places, many getting Masters and PhDs around Africa, the US and Europe. He tells us that he can educate five times as many students at AIMS for the money it takes to send one student to the US or Europe.

Turok shares his dream: “that the next einstein will be African.” Not just Einstein, but the next Gates, Brin and Page. To help this happen, he wants to scale up AIMS, building 15 centers across Africa. Each will be pan-African, and each will focus on a different aspect of science. The centers will teach entrepreneurship and policy skills as well, and build a network of graduates who will help transform the continent. The next centers are slated for Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda and Madagascar. I can’t wait to get involved, and I bet a lot of other people here feel the same way.

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