Friday, May 16, 2008

Hawking, Einstein, Africa

I understand the overall idea here and it is good, but on the other hand from a deeper epistemological issue is this not fostering Einstein-type physics...empirical evidence set aside? I think they mean merely a brilliant individual of the sciences.


Theoretical physics...philosophy/sci-fi?

Time to re-evaluate physics

"Stephen Hawking in hunt for Africa's hidden talent"


Jonathan Leake

Science Editor

May 11th, 2008


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.

"SciFest Africa"

Innovative hands-on festival gets kids excited about science


Marc Zimmer

May 19, 2008

Chemical & Engineering News

Volume 86, Number 20

American Chemical Society

TAKE 40,000 STUDENTS, more than 500 scientific events, and a lot of energy; then mix them all up in a town of 125,000 inhabitants and you have an experience of a lifetime—SciFest Africa.

The 12th consecutive SciFest Africa, themed "See science through different eyes," was held April 16–22 in Grahamstown, South Africa, and drew students and presenters from all over the world. The goals of the festival are to get schoolchildren excited about science and to develop a culture of science in South Africa so that young students admire scientists in the same way that they admire professional soccer and rugby players.

This annual festival has more than twice as many attendees as an American Chemical Society national meeting, with most of the action occurring in a relatively small convention center. It is not a place for the fainthearted. I have never seen so many excited children all in the same place. The students, called "learners" in South Africa, breathlessly move between lectures and exhibits, deciding whether to attend a local drama company's quirky play about global warming and the effects it has on the polar ice caps or magician and physicist Bob Friedhoffer's informal lecture about the science behind magic.

SciFest was born in 1994, when Brian (Bug) Wilmot, a dragonfly specialist, attended the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Wilmot decided to create SciFest to bring science to young South African students. "Not that we call it science, we call it fun," Wilmot says with a smile. South Africa's festival has been so successful that other science festivals are being modeled after it, including Finland's SciFest Joensuu. One of the many fun and interactive exhibits at this year's SciFest was a virtual-reality tug-of-war in which students in South Africa competed with students in Joensuu.

The 569 events offered at the festival were arranged into a main program organized by SciFest and a fringe program planned and hosted by outside organizations. The main program consisted of 27 lectures (by 12 international and 15 South African scientists); 39 "talkshops," or lectures presented to small groups to allow discussion and debate; 326 interactive workshops; field trips; a laser show; science olympics with events such as bridge building, a balloon-powered rocket race, and trebuchet construction; a science quiz; paper-plane competitions; and 17 film screenings. Fringe contributors included Grahamstown-based Rhodes University, which gave the winner of the science quiz a one-year college scholarship; the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town; and St. Andrews Preparatory School in Grahamstown.

Try to fit all that into your schedule and still find time to read a newspaper. The School of Journalism & Media Studies at Rhodes University published a low-budget, high-adrenaline daily tabloid, "SciCue," that was distributed to all attendees. Geared toward the older students, the paper reported on the previous day's SciFest activities. On the second day of the festival, for example, headlines included "A Primordial Alphabet Soup," "Sweet-Mouthed Romeos More Likely To Score," "Africa's Nice Rice Man," "Mystifying the Mind," "A Day in the Life of a Marine Biologist," and "Save Energy Now."

I went to SciFest to give a lecture about fluorescent proteins, mosquitoes with glowing gonads, and colorful brain tissue images called brainbows, but I was easily persuaded to also give a talkshop about ethical questions associated with genetic engineering.

THE FIRST ROW of my talkshop was already full when I arrived 20 minutes before I was due to start. The room filled up from the front to the back. I was in for a further surprise when I started chatting to my eager front-rowers; they were part of a group of eight students from the American School of Yaounde, in Cameroon, and had flown to South Africa just for SciFest. Cameroon has 200 different languages; the students all spoke at least one of the Cameroonian languages, as well as French and English. In the coming hours and days, I asked many students where they came from and was surprised to learn many school groups had traveled between five and 10 hours to be part of the SciFest experience.

The flagship events of SciFest are the lectures, for which the speakers are invited a full year before the festival. This year, the presenters included Sir David King, the U.K.'s chief scientific adviser and head of the U.K.'s Office of Science, and plant breeder Monty Jones, World Food Prize laureate in 2004 and one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2007.

More than 400 people attended my lecture, and afterward I spent more than an hour answering questions from inquisitive students. The access students have to scientists, and their ability to ask questions of the scientists, is arguably the most important facet of SciFest.

"In many cases, you are the first real, live scientists the students have ever met," SciFest manager Margaret Wolff told me. "And flesh-and-blood scientists are so much more interesting than the kinds of crazy Einsteins you see on Cartoon Network."

SciFest's Frontiers of Science program gives lecturers a chance to discuss their research in more detail with local scientists at Rhodes University. I addressed their chemistry department, which is small—with just 10 full-time faculty members—but active. For example, chemistry professor Tebello Nyokong, the vice chairwoman of the SciFest national advisory committee, published 35 nanotechnology papers in 2007. The most famous paper to come from the Rhodes chemistry department was written in June 1939, by organic chemist and self-taught ichthyologist James L. B. Smith, who announced the discovery of the coelacanth, a fish previously thought to have been extinct for 65 million years.

SciFest Africa's permanent staff of five people is responsible for finding presenters for more than 500 events and for putting together the complex weeklong program. They supervise 150 interns and volunteers who supplement the staff during the festival. The staff members also find sponsorship for the festival, which allows for an entrance fee of only about $1.00. Besides the obvious challenges of feeding and housing the festival's 45,000 attendees, SciFest's organizers have a uniquely African challenge: South Africa has grown so rapidly that its electricity use has outstripped its electricity production. As a consequence, festival organizers had to work around scheduled 2.5-hour power outages every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning. My hosts in the chemistry department at Rhodes, for example, secured a generator so that they would not have to power down their nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers during the outages.

FOR THE FIRST 11 years, support for the festival was provided by Sasol, a South African chemical company. This year, Sasol was joined by an insurance company, Old Mutual. The British Council, the Finnish and French Embassies, and the U.S. Agency for International Development sponsored speakers from their home countries. To ensure that students from even the poorest schools could attend the festival, the South African Department of Education funded transportation and admission for two teachers and 30 students from the most disadvantaged schools in each of 35 school districts surrounding Grahamstown.

Recognizing that the hustle and bustle in the conference center must be overwhelming to many of their rural visitors, Scifest organizers employed local university students to act as SciGuides. These guides welcome incoming school groups and give them short introductory tours before letting them run free in what is well-fertilized ground for nuturing future scientists.

Americans can learn a lot from the success of SciFest Africa. We need to do more to change the public's awareness of science and chemistry, and an event like SciFest might help attract more students to the sciences, especially those from underrepresented groups. Wouldn't it be great if we could have an annual ACS ChemFest associated with one of the two national ACS meetings? Imagine busing students from local, economically disadvantaged schools to an ACS ChemFest, where our dynamic faculty, industrial chemists, and students could show off their favorite demonstrations and excite students with cutting-edge chemistry.

Science in Africa

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