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In search of the African Einstein (1)-By Obadiah Mailafia- A must read!

Started by Nuruddeen, September 21, 2008, 03:52:20 PM

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Salam Kanoonline Members,

It has been quite sometime since I read an article that made lots of meaning and sense to me like this one written by my very good friend, Dr. Obadiah Mailafia. After reading all through the excerpts, I had to respond to him in three parts, which was the one I pasted  for you some weeks back. Please if you read it let us know what you make out of it. We shall subsequently conclude the debate soon.

And we thank you.

Jibo Nura (a.k.a Nuruddeen)

In search of the African Einstein (I)

Last Updated ( Saturday, 07 June 2008 )

Written by Obadiah Mailafia, on 08-06-2008 00:00

I have always regretted that I left the sciences too early – as far back as my WASC Ordinary Levels. It is indeed one of the
criticisms that could be levelled against our British-derived system of education — the fact that it forces young people to decide their professional fate much too early in the day. In the French and American systems, a young lad of eighteen could just as easily major in modern languages as he could in medicine or engineering. It says remarkable things about the American system that my young friend Uzodinma Okonjo-Iweala, son of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala — who majored in English as an undergraduate and became a celebrated novelist — is now reading medicine at Harvard. Such a thing could never happen in your typical Commonwealth country. One of the great things that the Swiss-originated International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum has going for it is that students have to do virtually everything and do not have to narrow their choices so prematurely. Unfortunately, most children find the IB syllabus rather forbidding. Even in the UK, only a select number of schools have adopted the IB syllabus.

I am not one of those Nigerians who like to boast that they were such great geniuses in their school days. Truth is, I wasn't. If I must tell you, I generally hated school right from primary one. Going to school was an every day battle with Mother Dear. Instead of hurrying off to school, most days, I would hang out with my childhood Fulani friend, Lawal, while he looked after the cattle at their ruga not far from my parents' home. I always thought it was fantastic that Lawal and I could just pull up the teats of a cow and have our fill of fresh milk. Believe it or not, I was a notorious truant at school. I always got whipped for coming late by those wicked teachers. I will mention the one I hated the most because he is dead: Mr Alaba, whom we nicknamed 'Alaba Pepper'. The only person I ever truly loved as a teacher is my first primary school master, Z. D. Samson, of blessed memory. Since I was always late, he would stop and pick me on his motorcycle and I would cling to the old fogy as we threw dust at everyone else that had the misfortune to be scurrying off on those dusty roads. The gates would get shut as soon as his scooter stuttered in, and the little unfortunates who came late would get the lashings of their lives.

When I was shipped off to Mada Hills Secondary School, a rather uppity missionary boarding school in the Old Plateau State, I was not a particularly happy child. True, I sailed through Chemistry and Physics and I could call the bluff of any mathematician. But, intellectually, the sciences just never did it for me. Perhaps it was the teaching. The Chemistry mistress would come in and announce Gay Lussac's Law of Gaseous Volumes or Avogadro's Theorem. How they related to the lives of real people living in real time, I hadn't the vaguest idea. Biology was so descriptive that I got instantly bored whenever the master walked into class. The Geography master was a certified ignoramus. I was more curious about the blue UN map that hanged on the wall and the rather demure photograph of U Thant of Burma, who was at the time Secretary-General of the United Nations. Surprisingly, one of the teachers that made quite an impression on me was the Hausa Master. Going through the stories of Abubakar Imam and the rich tapestry of Hausa folklore and proverbs, we learned so much from him about life, about politics, and about the wisdom of our fathers. We were not surprised when he went on to become a successful politician.

During break time, when everyone gossiped about their summer-vacation romantic escapades, I buried myself in the library, reading Wordsworth and Thomas Jefferson. I discovered for myself the golden mansions of English literature and the world of the great philosophers. I ruminated on what made society tick and why nations got rich while others remained poor; I was more impressed with Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and Kwame Nkrumah than with Louis Pasteur and Michael Faraday. I was annoyed with myself when I read Russell's Principia Mathematica and could not make head or tail out of it. I felt I was in school merely to please my father who saw in me a substitute for all his thwarted intellectual ambitions. I was indifferent to studies, and right from secondary school through university, I always had my own private syllabus which had absolutely nothing to do with what the teachers where up to. How I managed to pass, to this day, I do not know.

Because I missed out on the sciences, I tried to interest, cajole — and even bribe — my own teenage sons into doing them. Sadly, it just never worked. I blame myself for having mentioned Spinoza, J.S. Mill, Descartes and Napoleon Bonaparte to them when they were yet too impressionable. One is on his way to the Inner Temple and the English Bar, while the other is majoring in the heavily liberal combinations of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). During the holidays, whilst the one lectures me on Lord Denning, the other pesters me with the dialectical subtleties of Greek philosophy; of Sophocles and Anaximander.

And yet, I consider myself a great admirer of the sciences. I owe much of this to a dear friend, Dr Aminu Ibrahim Mamman. A veterinarian, former Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) don and former NUC official, Aminu is, in my view, a genius of sorts. Throughout our days as undergraduates in ABU, I can swear that I never once saw him reading a medical book. And yet he passed everything, and even published papers in international scientific journals as an undergraduate. With a keen scientific mind, he was totally devoted to Reason and would scornfully dismiss any superstitious nonsense whenever he came across it. Never having studied computer science, he literally became the university consultant in database management when he became a young lecturer. There was also Kabiru Abdullahi Yusuf, publisher of the Daily Trust, a wide-ranging mind that combines seriousness with wit and good humour. The other friend was Abdulrazak, who is an engineer and currently one of the most brilliant generals in the Nigerian army. Whilst we were undergraduates he once went on holidays to Greece and brought back a telescope. Now, they got me truly fascinated. I was majoring in Social Sciences and yet we spent starry nights peering into the heavens on the roof of the Engineering Faculty Building. I was getting more and more entranced by what they told me about Einstein and Planck. I now found the debates between Relativity and Quantum Physics of deeper interest than the puerile ideological debates by Bala Usman and his dim-witted disciples. But it was too late for me. My fate had been sealed.
Later in life, I continued to keep up with my scientific interests even as my future was now solidly in economics and international development studies. Taking on board C. P. Snow's Cambridge lectures on the 'two cultures', I continued to cultivate my interests in the history and philosophy of science. Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions opened a whole new vista for me. So did Karl Popper, with his famous Conjectures and Refutations. In intellectual terms, I spent nights with Feyerabend, Bergson and Michael Polanyi. I often flattered myself of being in the company of Russell and Whitehead who managed to understand science even though they were mere philosophers.

It was Sir Isaac Newton who once said that he felt like a child picking pebbles by the seaside, while the whole ocean of knowledge lay before him – the biggest understatement of our millennium. On my part, I have felt, in scientific terms, like the infant who does not even know the way to the seaside. I have to content myself with the second-order preoccupation of merely absorbing what scientists choose to interpret to laymen like myself. And yet, I remain in awe of the sciences and what many of my friends have achieved. During graduate school days in England I met some of the most brilliant young men and women who were doing wonderful things in the sciences.
Their mental level was way beyond anything you could imagine. Ruth Lawrence entered Oxford at age 11, accompanied by her father, because she was too young to look after herself. Graduating with distinction in applied maths at 13, she received a doctorate at eighteen and moved on to a Fellowship at Harvard. To our consternation, we received news that she had eloped with a fellow mathematician aged sixty. She claimed he was the only man who ever understood her! From the last I heard of her, she is a professor of Applied Topology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

My friend Masoud from Pakistan was a theoretical physicist of distinction. Everybody believed he would one day get the Nobel. Then there is my English friend Simon. He was doing genetics and they were over the moon with excitement at the human genome project which was being unravelled at the time. They waxed lyrical about the glorious future of humanity being irrevocably changed as a consequence of the work that they were doing as scientists. Whenever Roger Penrose — probably the world's greatest mathematician — walked by, we would bow in respect. There were other-worldly humanoids like George Efstathiou, who had been appointed to the Savillian Chair of Astronomy at All Souls at the uncommon age of thirty-three.

Science is great because its laws are fixed and open to scrutiny by any clever boy or girl, while a subject such as mass communication (my journalist friends, please, forgive me) is just what it says — for the masses. I once came across a few remarks by the philosopher and mathematician Lord Russell who said that he was saved from suicide only because of his love for mathematics. Scion to an earldom, and son of a former British Prime Minister, he was not in lack of material comforts. Life bored him and he suffered from an intense and overbearing intellectual loneliness. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Russia's greatest 20th century writer, says pretty much the same thing. During nearly two decades in the Soviet Gulag Archipelago, he came to discover religion. But he confesses that what gave him a capacity for mental endurance was the fact that he was able to practise higher mathematics during the bleakest of Siberian winters.
Because I grew up in the rural countryside, I adore science because it is about nature. Sometimes I wish I had done Physics and gone on to do a doctorate in Cosmology instead of Economics and the Policy Sciences which have been macerated by too many fools. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on the European Union and its development financing in East and Central Africa. Much as I would like to flatter myself, it is not the sort of work that can claim to have changed the structure of human thought or indeed the destiny of the human condition as we know it.

I have gone through these ruminations after a long-lost friend emailed me some write-up about the Cambridge Scientist Stephen Hawking and his mission to South Africa recently. Hawking claims he is on a quest to 'discover the African Einstein'. For those who may not know this remarkable man, his story is worth a few moments. Stephen Hawking is arguably the world's greatest living scientist. He is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, the Chair once occupied by none other than Sir Isaac Newton himself. What is extraordinary is that this scientific genius of world repute is a complete cripple. Stricken by a rare form of motor-neuron disease as a 21 year old, Hawking is completely paralysed from head to toe. The only thing over which he has any control is one forefinger, which he uses to press a computerised voice-synthesiser that enables him to achieve some level of human communication.

Stephen Hawking is a living symbol of the literal triumph of mind over matter, the quintessential 'profile in courage'; the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Even the greatest of mathematicians – Albert Einstein inclusive – have always needed a pencil and paper to work with. And in our digital age, they all use computers. Hawking is unable to do either. He does all the complex math completely mentally. Without any reservations, his scientific peers rank him with Albert Einstein and Galileo; they describe him as the sort of mind that appears once in a century. Together with Roger Penrose, he has made discoveries on the theorems of singularities within the framework of general relativity. Scientists today use the term 'Hawking Radiation' in reference to his prediction that black holes should emit radiation. His famous book, a Brief History of Time, was on the Sunday Times bestseller list for an unprecedented 237 weeks. He has not been awarded the Nobel up till now only because his field is so abstruse that its practical applications may take decades to be realised. Alfred Nobel's will clearly states that any prize being awarded for the sciences must show demonstrable practical utility.

Mailafia is chairman of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, Abuja.
o try and fail is atleast to learn. That will save one the inestimable loss of what might have been (positive or negative).


as at the time of making this post, there are 18 views
on this thread, i am sure, i bag about 8 out of the 18,
each round of my coming i fail to reply even after i tried.

I read the piece twice, no doubt, the writer is an
excellent writer putting into consideration how he
chronologically go about his story with both his personal
history and his topic of discussion.

i once have the opportunity of reading one of the numerous
piece of Dr. Bugaje (even after he soiled his hands in our
naija style politics) which suggested that the except our
educational system is being completely overhauled, the
current trend of standard of education and crops of graduates
with no intellectual backing and training is going to continue
till the end of times.  In essence, the present forms of
corruption in our daily government affairs, in our academic
life and other sections where those mantling its affairs are
products of our colleges and universities is going to continue
as he strongly argued that our colleges and university curriculum
are never designed to produce and train leaders or professionals
in various fields.

I always give example from myself, i was forced to read what I
never intended to read and its still affecting me even after I have
graduated - our systems is so designed that GUIDANCE and Counselling
is never put into practice, just graduate kawai.

When we look at what Bugaje said, we have no cause to blame
either the lecturers or those leadership at the top, because, as he
said, they are all product of the same system.  When scientist all
over the world are busy cracking their brain to solve puzzles that
can excelled human life, scientist in my country have metamorphose
into administrators.  Come to the Fed. Ministry of Health and see how
medical doctors with good record and reputation have turned to
administration, you can swear they are not.

I heard that an old building that was brought down in Lagos recently,
Nigeria have to borrow Engineers from Israel to do it, I dont know what
type of defence the NSE will put forward even after they celebrated their
50th Anniversary lavishly.  So it goes in all spheres ranging from communication,
road construction, building, doctors etc. I dont know of NIQS, but I am very
sure that SENATOR BUKAR ABBA IBRAHIM is a product of the institution  ;D  ;D  ;D.

The question we need to ask ourselves and give answer is
what is the way forward?
"My mama always used to tell me: 'If you can't find somethin' to live for, you best find somethin' to die for" - Tupak


The question we need to ask ourselves and give answer is
what is the way forward?

I am sure you did not read my reply to Obadiah tagged " Between Mailafia, Stephen Hawking and quest for African Einstein(1).

Please refer to it and read for the solution that you are looking for. Then read the subsequent posts Dan Barno. Ya Azumi da kuma shirin sallah?
o try and fail is atleast to learn. That will save one the inestimable loss of what might have been (positive or negative).


The only problem is that; you rather deliveretely refused to respond to any of those subsequent replies. Felt partially forsaken. LOL ;D
Get to know [and remember] Allah in prosperity & He will know  [and remember] you in adversity.


Quote from: Muhsin on September 28, 2008, 12:59:29 PM
The only problem is that; you rather deliveretely refused to respond to any of those subsequent replies. Felt partially forsaken. LOL ;D

Which reply are u talking of Muhsin. Ko dai shakiyanci kake kawai?Lol!!
o try and fail is atleast to learn. That will save one the inestimable loss of what might have been (positive or negative).


Go to the next page of this board, Nura. Look for the first version of the thread you posted. I have some problems with my system, hence I'm unable to nither copy its link nor quote it from there.
Get to know [and remember] Allah in prosperity & He will know  [and remember] you in adversity.