The quest to find the next Einstein

Weekender

By THOMAS HUKAHU
WHAT is the greatest discovery ever?
Is it gold at the top of a mountain, oil under the sea or diamond in the desert?
Actually, a top-notch scientist in the 18th century who contributed a lot to inventing processes, as well as making many discoveries, thought otherwise.
The greatest discovery by a chemist
When the chemist from the Royal Society and Royal Institution, Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), the discoverer of chlorine and iodine and inventor of the new field of electrochemistry, was once asked what his best discovery was. His response was surprisingly terse – he said, “Michael Faraday”.
Faraday is a British physicist and chemist who made contributions to science – particularly, in the laws of electrolysis and principles of electromagnetic induction.
Faraday, worked in a bookbinding shop, starting at the age of 14, where he read science books in his spare time.
When Sir Humphry gave his public lectures, young Faraday – then in his 20s – sat in the audience and took notes of the famous scientist’s talks. After the lectures, Faraday rewrote the notes, drew diagrams to go with the talks and bound the papers and presented them to Sir Humphry as a 300-page book.
He also asked the scientist to take him on as his assistant at the institution. Although impressed with Faraday’s remarkable comprehension of scientific principles, Sir Humphry told the young man to wait until there was a vacancy.
Sure enough, a few years later, Sir Humphry called on Faraday to join him at the society as an assistant – and the rest was history, as they say.
Where will the next Einstein be found?
Sir Humphry discovered young Faraday who held down a job binding books for a living and without any formal qualification in science. He left school early and he more-or-less taught himself everything else.
A good question to ask would be: Is it possible that there are other Faradays out there?
Or, is there some young mind as brilliant as the famous theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (1921-1935) and waiting to be discovered?
That is a question that nobody asks in today’s world – not in a thousand conversations you may have heard today, or the whole week.
However, at least one eminent theoretical physicist has started on a quest and he is operating on a belief that the next Einstein is somewhere in Africa and he is working with other professionals like him to identify that child.
The professor with an unusual mission
Theoretical physicist Prof Neil Turok, who was born and raised in South Africa, said in his TED talk in 2008, that while he was lecturing and researching at Cambridge, something bothered him.
He told his story about growing up in South Africa and then leaving to go to England with his parents and later returning to Lesotho as a 17-year-old volunteer teacher to help educate young children, those from poor families – those whose fathers were working in mines in very brutal conditions.
Turok said one day he had a class outside of the classroom where he asked his students to estimate the height of a building.
He expected everyone to put a ruler against the wall of the building, size it up with a finger and make an estimate.
He noticed however that a small boy from one of the poorest families in the area was writing something on the pavement with a chalk.
Turok questioned the child about what he was doing, and the boy answered: “I measured the height of a brick, I counted the number of bricks and now I am multiplying.”
Turok was stunned by the response. He did not think of that approach in getting a possible answer.
“Many experiences like this happened to me,” Turok said in his talk.
“Many similar experiences convinced me that there are tonnes of bright kids in Africa – inventive kids, intellectual kids and starved of opportunity. And if Africa is going to be fixed, it’s by them, not us.”
Starting an institute to help in the quest
To help Turok in his quest to reach out to the young brilliant minds of Africa, he started the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a centre in Cape Town, South Africa, where students from all over the continent come to do postgraduate courses in maths and other related fields.
The courses are taught by Turok’s colleagues, lecturers from around the world in different fields – academics who are eager to give their time and energy to realise Turok’s vision with AIMS.
In his TED talk, Turok said: “Our dream is that the next Einstein will be African. In striving for the heights of creative genius we want to give thousands of people the motivation, the encouragement and the courage to obtain the high level skills to help Africa.
“Among them will be not only brilliant scientists – there will be also the African Gates, Brins and Pages.”
(Sergey Brin and Larry Page are the co-founders of Google.)
Turok believes wholeheartedly that Africa’s problems of poverty, diseases and wars can be best fixed by the young intellectuals of Africa.
In his talk he said: “The only people who can fix Africa are talented young Africans. By unlocking and nurturing their creative potential we can create a step-change in Africa’s future.
“Over time, they will contribute to African development and science in ways we can only imagine.”
Suggestions for Turok
Turok’s project is bearing fruit and governments from all over Africa are pledging their support for AIMS which has graduating students now studying for master’s degrees or PhDs all over the world.
Will the next Einstein be found at AIMS – or other institutes linked to it?
We will have to wait and see.
However, it would be worth mentioning that the next Einstein may not be found in an institute itself. We can learn that from history.
History tells us that after graduating from university, 25-year-old Einstein himself was working in a Swiss patent office when he developed his ground-breaking theories in physics.
Even more surprising is the life of British physicist, astronomer and mathematician, Isaac Newton (1642-1726), who lived two hundred years before Einstein was born.
Newton never showed any sign of being a prodigy of any kind as a child and later as an undergraduate student in Trinity College, Cambridge.
He did not show any remarkable flair in his BA studies. Before he could start on his MA studies, the university closed for a two-year break due to the Great Plague.
In those two years and while spending time with his grandmother (who had brought him up), Newton worked on novel concepts in calculus (a field he invented), optics and the laws of gravitation.
So, it is likely that the next Einstein could actually be discovered in his late 20s and working outside of a university – as he could be a late bloomer.
Turok has one thing right though by searching from the next big thing among the under-privileged children and working with them.
Unlike Einstein, whose father was an engineer, Newton came from a family where no-one in his genealogy showed any traits of being an academic, much less toying with physics principles.
The next Einstein could be like that – he could be somewhere in a countryside farm, poor village or patent shop. For now though, we will wait.

  • Thomas Hukahu is an educationist and freelance writer.

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