The following account of my involvement with AIMS appears in the booklet "AIMS: The first decade", compiled by Alan Beardon, and published by AIMS-South Africa, 2013.
My involvement in the AIMS initiative dates back to 2001, when I was still Director of the Newton Institute in Cambridge. Neil Turok sought my advice concerning the setting up of a similar Institute in South Africa. I still remember that phone-call. My immediate reaction was: what a brilliant idea! But the difficulties seemed formidable, and in particular the Newton Institute model of a ‘visitor research institute’ did not seem entirely appropriate to the situation in Africa. Here the most pressing need appeared to be to provide a diploma-style course at graduate level to bridge the gap from the very insecure sands of undergraduate attainment to the frontier at which research problems might be confidently addressed. A crash course of highly innovative structure was needed, something like the well-established Part III mathematics course in Cambridge, but adapted to Africa’s most compelling needs. Neil’s vision might evolve naturally over a period of years from the foundations laid by such a course. I enthusiastically supported this concept, and encouraged Neil to give initial priority to graduate-level education, and to seek to engage lecturers from the international community as well as from neighbouring South African universities, to provide the style of teaching that this diploma course would require.
The AIMS initiative was timely in relation to the priority that was increasingly being accorded during the 1990s to ‘capacity-building’ by international organisations, and particularly by ICSU (the International Council for Science), whose raison d’être is the “strengthening of international science for the benefit of society”. ICSU is the umbrella organisation for no less than 31 International Scientific Unions, including the International Mathematical Union (IMU). I was privileged during the period 2000-2004 to be President of one of these Unions, the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (IUTAM), and this gave me a window of opportunity to promote the AIMS initiative at the ICSU level. On behalf of IUTAM, and with the support of five other Unions (IUGG, IMU, IUPAP, IUPAC and IAU), I applied in February 2003 for a capacity-building grant to help with the establishment and promotion of AIMS during its crucial first year 2003/4. This grant ($100,000) was duly awarded, and it enabled us to hold a capacity-building workshop at AIMS in April 2004, hosting representatives from 20 African States; this served to promote the distinctive character of AIMS, and it was in fact here that Neil Turok’s vision of a network of AIMS centres based on the AIMS-South Africa prototype was first aired and discussed; originally called AMI-NET, this has now evolved into the major AIMS-NEI initiative, with three further AIMS centres now established in Senegal, Ghana and Cameroon.
AIMS for me conjures up a wonderful place and a wonderful vision. The place in perhaps obvious ways -- that beautiful Muizenberg beach with its rolling surf and rugged mountainous backdrop; the seaside panorama to the south, to Kalk Bay and beyond, with the ever-active railway line on the right and the vision of spouting whales off-shore on the left; the stunning drama of the drive to Cape Point where the two great oceans meet. It all made a vivid impression on me during my first visit to Muizenberg, and indeed my first visit to South Africa, for the the meeting of the AIMS Council and the inauguration of AIMS in September 2003.
Neil Turok’s vision was already in place: that of creating a College-style center of intense teaching, learning and research for gifted graduate students from all over Africa, to enable them to cross the difficult bridge from undergraduate study to independent creative thinking in the mathematical sciences. The first course had just begun, and the enthusiasm and extraordinarily high level of motivation of the first cohort of students was plain for all to see. AIMS was to provide a beacon of hope radiating across Africa to aspiring graduate students eager to continue their studies to a level at which they might be able to engage in independent research for the benefit of their country and their continent.
I was honoured to serve on the Council of AIMS for 10 years, representing Cambridge University, which, together with Oxford and the Université de Paris-Sud-11, subscribed to a Memorandum of Understanding with AIMS in August 2003. Cambridge has been generous in support of AIMS through the teaching that it has provided; and I was particularly glad that Trinity College, at my instigation, provided a generous grant during the early years towards purchase of the properties on Melrose Road (now housing the AIMS Research Centre) opposite the main AIMS building.
To end on a personal note, I discovered a long-lost branch of my own family on my maternal grandmother’s side, when I first visited Cape Town in 2003. My grandmother, who died in 1976 at the age of 97, had always talked about her elder sister Jessie, who in 1891 had married a Scot, one John Todd Morrison, the couple then emigrating to South Africa. She had told me that John Morrison had been Professor of Physics at Stellenbosch University. Jessie had three sons, but she died in 1903 aged just 34, a tragedy that left its mark on my grandmother even so many years later. My visits to Muizenberg enabled me, with the kind help of Fritz Hahne, to track down the descendants of John and Jessie Morrison: four grandchildren, my second cousins, still living in Cape Town, with an extended network of their own children and grandchildren. We had a wonderful family reunion in April 2004, and have been in regular contact since then. John Todd Morrison was indeed the first Professor of Physics at Stellenbosch, from about 1897. It is related that he advised Captain Scott, who stopped at Cape Town on his way to Antarctica, on the use of the latest magnetic compass; there is in consequence a Mount Morrisonin Antarctica named after him. At 1895m in height, it is the 1329th highest mountain in Antarctica. How about that, now!
The launch of AIMS-Cameroon
AIMS-Cameroon commenced operation in September 2013 with its first class of graduate students, but the official launch took place on 19th February 2014 at a grand ceremony in the capital Yaounde, under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister of Cameroon, Philémon Yang. As a member of the Board of AIMS-NEI, I was privileged to attend this gathering. I took the opportunity also to visit AIMS-Ghana, which had opened one year earlier. The outstanding progress in the establishment of these new AIMS Centres is due to the infectious drive, commitment, and enthusiasm of Thierry Zomahoun,Executive Director of AIMS-NEI, and his support team.
The image on the right is described as follows: "A royal Elephant head made from kola nut tree, decorated with cowries, coins and bronze tusks. This sculpture is from the Bamoun Kingdom of the West Region of Cameroon. The elephant in the Bamoun tradition reflects personality, wisdom and magnificence. It is offered to special guests as a symbol of everlasting friendship, peace and cooperation."
Prime Minister's Office, Yaounde, 19th February 2014.