The city is largely low-rise, although there are patches of new construction; buildings in the faded yellows and pinks that represent new west African modernism. Roadsides bristle with billboards advertising mobile phones, televisions, beer and real estate. Traffic has grown along with the economy. Cars spill out on to the Cape Coast Road, which snakes from Nigeria’s commercial hub of Lagos in the east to the battered but recovering Ivorian city of Abidjan in the west. Roughly at the midpoint — about 50 kilometres west of Accra — is Saltpond. Once the site of the earliest European military structures on the continent, the area is about to become home to the latest outpost of AIMS — the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

The brainchild of South African cosmologist Neil Turok, one of Africa’s most decorated scientists, AIMS is a bold initiative that seeks to create a new scientific class in Africa. More than that, Turok hopes to advance science through the rest of the world by teasing from Africa’s intelligentsia an individual who can re-imagine how we see the world. Turok intends to create a mathematical community by establishing mathematical bootcamps. He plans to build 15, with versions already in Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa.

Turok, 54, sees conditions in Africa today as comparative to those of eastern Europe 100 years ago: then, ambitious young Jews were suddenly granted access to education, and went on to make significant discoveries and advances in science. Now it is the turn of Africans. “Einstein came from a very disadvantaged community, which had been completely excluded from university until the second half of the 19th century,” he says in his office in Ontario, Canada, where he runs the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. “But once they got into university, that first generation, you start having Jacobi, Einstein, Bohr, Pauli. This group completely revolutionised physics.”

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August 1, 2012