A new forum hopes to bring Africa’s scientific researchers together
Mar 12th 2016 Economist
Assand Gueye, a Senegalese-born postdoctoral researcher at America’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, is a student of systems. He studies the multiple networks of communications that hold cities together, and feels that a new scientific discipline is needed to describe these systems of systems. He hopes to create one.
The Senegalese campus, built on a beach-front an hour’s drive south of Dakar, is a place where up to 80 graduate students (who pay no fees for the privilege, the institute being funded by government grants and commercial sponsors) can sit for a year at the feet of visiting academics from Africa and elsewhere. These visitors come for three-week stints to lecture in subjects such as cryptography, finance and quantum mechanics. Students are thus exposed to a wide variety of ideas during their stay.
Amanda Weltman, a physicist at the University of Cape Town, seeks nuance in the laws of gravity. She suspects there is an undiscovered particle that links gravitational attraction with nature’s other forces, and is planning an experiment that uses a special satellite to try to track it down.
Tolu Oni, an epidemiologist also at Cape Town, and Evelyn Gitau, an immunologist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, both know that the seriousness of the illnesses they are trying to beat—AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis—can be amplified or diminished by patients’ circumstances, but they do not understand the details. Both have the same problem, managing large data sets. But until this week, they had never met.
These four scientists are among 15 fellows who, together with 800 other academics, business folk and politicians (including the presidents of Senegal and Rwanda), are gathered at the Next Einstein Forum, being held this week in Dakar in Senegal. Next Einstein, the brainchild of Thierry Zomahoun, a Béninois administrator, is an attempt to scale up African science. At the moment, most African scientists work either in isolation or abroad. They do not know one another and are invisible to prospective colleagues. Visas for collaborative work are hard to come by and even flying from one part of Africa to another may require going via a non-African hub, such as Dubai. Next Einstein is an attempt to overcome this fragmentation, by providing a continental congress at which African scientists can meet.
The forum has grown out of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), of which Mr Zomahoun is president. AIMS is a graduate school with branches in Cameroon, Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa, as well as in Senegal. It was founded in 2003 by Neil Turok, a South African who now directs the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. In a sense, Dr Turok’s situation is an example of the problems Next Einstein is trying to overcome, for the Perimeter is based in Canada, and so he now lives in Ontario.
AIMS concentrates on maths for two reasons. First, being a subject that requires little equipment beyond students’ brains, it is cheap to teach. Second, when Dr Turok was asking fellow African researchers which subjects would be most pertinent to the continental scientific Renaissance he hoped to trigger, most agreed that maths, which is fundamental to the rest of science, was the one to go for.
Whether Next Einstein, which plans to meet every two years, will be able to build on AIMS and create for African scientists the sorts of opportunities that those in the rich world take for granted remains to be seen. But, as Mr Zomahoun observes, 40% of the world’s children are African. Statistically, therefore, the chances that the next Einstein will come from Africa are good. This week’s meeting in Dakar is at least a step on the road to making those odds more than just theoretical.