Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Searching for the Next Einstein

There is a profound belief in the West that if we throw enough money at a problem, the problem will ultimately go away. I'm not sure how or when or by whom this misconception was started. I do know it runs deep in this country, and recent world events have shown its fragility.

I read extensively about Africa and the circumstances that many of the nations on that continent are facing politically, economically, and socially. Recently I heard an NPR story covering integrated schools in South Africa where students don't feel safe because of ever-rising racial tensions. In the New York Times I've been following the campaign of Morgan Tsvangirai, the man who dared to challenge President Mugabe, and then dropped out due to the threat of violence. Yesterday I was reading a story in Sierra Magazine about Ethiopia's optimism, a story chronicling the long-overdue arrival of contraceptives that are allowing women and girls to take more control of their lives.

The one topic I don't hear much about in relation to Africa is science. Yes, in a roundabout way the topic is addressed via food shortages or medical relief work. Science education isn't touched. With great excitement I learned about a program initially sponsored through TED, NextEinstein. Neil Turok, a brilliant cosmologist and education advocate, was honored with the TED Prize, and thus was able to use TED's incredible network to announce his one wish for the world and receive support to bring that wish to life. “My wish is that you help us unlock and nurture scientific talent across Africa, so that within our lifetimes we are celebrating an African Einstein.” Essentially he is saying that Africa must solve Africa's problems if those solutions are to have longevity.

In 2003, Turok, who was born in South Africa, founded the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Muizenberg, a postgraduate educational center supporting the development of mathematics and science across the African continent. The website http://www.nexteinstein.org/ was just launched about a month ago and the movement is looking for help in the form of donations, media talent, creative business consultants, educators, and infrastructure.

This effort is about helping entire nations lift themselves up and propel themselves forward. African nations have been down-trodden for too long, dependent on aid that is always too slow to arrive and never substantial enough. Neil Turok is building a program for Africans to help other Africans. There is more to those nations than disease and war and social ills, contrary to so much of what our national media covers. It is a continent rich with possibility and talent and heritage. Now the question is how to mine that potential so that the outcome is even more elaborate than Turok's dream. To lend a hand, visit the TED Prize website.

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