Turok the African

Is Neil Turok of the Perimeter Institute “nuts”? He thinks so. A conversation with Paul Wells.


Turok the AfricanAs I mentioned earlier, my column about Neil Turok and Perimeter Institute left out substantial chunks of our interview. So here are some of those, er, chunks.

Before he joined Perimeter last year, Turok was known (among physicists; I’d never heard of the guy) for two things:

• an extraordinary intelligence and an iconoclastic spirit which leads him to question some of the fundamental tenets of his field, including, in his cyclic universe model, the very idea of a Big Bang;

• his roots in South Africa, which led him to found and to devote much of his time to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. It’s based on a non-intuitive proposition: that on a continent where in many places there is cruelly limited access to food, running water or hospital beds, what’s needed is more theoretical physicists. And yet AIMS has been running for six years, is now operating on two campuses, and as the map on this page suggests, it has now graduated students from (by my count) 27 African countries. That’s barely the beginning of Turok’s ambitions for Perimeter’s distant African cousin.

I’ll pick up this segment of the interview where Turok is saying it’s pointless to try to direct research because the greatest discoveries have a way of appearing out of the blue. “Just as an outsider from Cambridge, if somebody told me 10 years ago that you could create a world-class centre for theoretical physics in Waterloo, I would have thought you were mad. No matter how much you spent. But Perimeter has done it. I think it was precisely because it came from left field. It ignored all the usual rules. And that was a great thing.”

Sensing a segué opportunity, I said: If a guy who wanted to start a physics institute in Waterloo would have been mad, what should I think about a guy who wants to start fifteen of them in Africa? Turok laughed hard at that one.

“He’s also nuts. He’s similarly nuts. Yeah, my work in Africa is a big reason for why I came to Perimeter. I was a conventional university professor, pursuing my research and teaching career, and university administration. And because of my family roots, I got this opportunity to help create a centre in Africa. Very different from Perimeter in many ways: we started with zero money; we had to raise every penny through hard work; it started very small, very modest. We renovated a derelict hotel.

“But what I learned through that process was that conventional academia does not have all the answers. If you want to dramatically push the opportunities for science or technology forward in Africa, there are other ways to do it, which avoid the conventional route. Stronger than that: I would say, if you want to do it quickly, avoid the conventional route. Think with a fresh mind. Design a curriculum which is really exciting and appropriate. Bring the world’s best and brightest. Recruit students energetically. Use the internet for all that it’s worth. And basically leapfrog the traditional academic system. And for me this was so rewarding, to attempt to create this super-ambitious project and see it succeed, that when I learned about Perimeter I saw something very similar. At a much higher academic level, and global rather than local, but it fit very well with my own activities.”

The very existence of AIMS, I suggested, implies a critique of traditional development assistance. Turok agreed:

“The critique is that for too long the aid community has focused on poverty reduction, which is a very worthy cause. But it’s a double negative. It is not a concept which contains the solutions. It simply says, ‘We alleviate suffering, we provide food, medicine.’ It’s charity, by and large, which does not lead to long-term economic growth and self-sufficiency. I think what the AIMS project does is bring a new angle, a new approach into development, which I would characterize as smart aid: Investing in minds, investing in people, investing in their skills, enabling them to become leaders in their own society, in technology, in science, in government, in NGOs, in business.

“And I think a very broad training in mathematical sciences, modelling, computing, data analysis — brings with it a very powerful set of intellectual tools. It brings models of objectivity and truth, which are very important in divided societies and continents. So the very objectivity of mathematical science is a marvelous bridge between cultures. So you get students from Nigeria and Madagascar and Congo and Sudan. Put them all together. They’re all focused around science, technology, maths — they all agree. And suddenly they realize, Ah, we are all the same.

“And this is one of the things we’ve learned at AIMS, and which I’ve brought to Perimeter. We will actually be using theoretical physics, which I view as the pinnacle of quantitative science, as a bridge around the world. If you wanted to build intellectual links around the world, which field should you do it? Would you choose history or politics or economics? No way. Because these are very subjective. Mathematics is great but it doesn’t apply to the real world. Mathematics is a pure-logic endeavour. Theoretical physics, or applied mathematical science, is the field to choose. And it’s very futuristic, it will be essential for our future. So I believe very strongly this is a new way of linking the world.”

Fine, I said. But what good does it do? If I’m a brilliant 24-year-old from Zambia, and I graduate with an advanced degree in theoretical physics from AIMS, I’m still going home to a place with limited sanitation, rampant corruption, and not even a textile factory, let alone a high-tech firm. What is my AIMS degree good for?

“Your example’s very real — because right now, half of the maths faculty in Zambia are graduates from AIMS. This tiny institute, with 50 grads a year, has had a huge impact. Firstly, in universities across the continent, you will find AIMS graduates as lecturers. But you’re absolutely right that unless there’s investment in those countries in higher education, nothing will happen. It’ll be just impossible for those people to function well. That is why we have this plan to create 15 centres. The second one opened in Nigeria just last year. We want to create new centres in Senegal, Ghana and Ethiopia. Each of those countries has a very promising environment for a number of reasons: they are relatively peaceful and stable; they have the best universities outside of South Africa and north Africa; they are known as pan-African countries, longstanding promoters of pan-Africanism. So these are natural places to try to do this.”

I asked what he thinks of Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian economist whose book Dead Aid suggests that most development assistance simply creates welfare dependencies in the recipient countries that are so catastrophic, the West should simply stop sending much of the money. Turok offered a partial endorsement:

“I think the critique of aid is valid. The simple fact that a trillion dollars has been spent, but Africa needs more aid than ever, shows you that it hasn’t worked. We need new approaches. For disaster relief and hunger, we have a moral obligation to help. And she agrees with that. But we have to be more intelligent about how aid is given. And I think investing in young Africans and making them skilled is the best thing we can possibly do for Africa.”

What advice would Turok give to CIDA and to Canadian governments in general if they want to really help Africa?

“The advice I would give is to build on Canada’s strengths. Canada is known as a peace-loving country. It’s known as a country with a huge internationalism. Indeed next year the G-8 will be meeting alongside the G-20. And Canada was instrumental in pushing for the G-20’s creation. So Canada can be influential, because of its own history and the way it is trusted around the world. Use that. Use the fact that Canada has an excellent public education system, excellent university system, use that as leverage for your aid to Africa, to try to help Africa put in place a similarly strong health-care, university, science, innovation system. Doing that, you’re building on your strengths. The rewards will be enormous. And I know, just talking to Canadian colleagues all around the country, people are really excited that they might be able to do something which makes a difference in Africa.”

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