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Stellenbosch University: Nobel symposia activities come to Africa

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Did you know that the Nobel Prize in Physics was not officially awarded for several years in the early 1930s – the longest peacetime hiatus in the award’s history? Did you know that this happened because it was, ironically, one of the most exciting and revolutionary periods in physics – the birth of subatomic physics?

When the prize was finally awarded in 1933 (having been deferred in 1932), it was awarded to scientific superstars Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger and Paul Dirac.

These fascinating facts were relayed by AlbaNova University Centre Director and scientific historian Prof Mats Larsson. Larsson was relating these events in his keynote address at the launch of the Nobel in Africa Initiative.

It is the first time since 1965 that a Nobel Symposium – the coming together of some of the biggest thinkers, researchers, and academics in the world – is happening outside Scandinavia: and it is happening in South Africa. Thanks to a concerted effort between the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Nobel Foundation, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and Stellenbosch University (SU), years of planning and effort has finally borne fruit.

Director of STIAS Prof Edward Kirumira welcomed the delegates and said that in this circumstance STIAS could be thought of as an African fireplace, “a place of convening and sharing wisdoms and passing them onto the next generation”. He acknowledged the participation of universities throughout South Africa in the initiative and emphasised the partnership between STIAS and SU in hosting the “momentous” event, which he hopes is “just the start of an exciting, international, mutually beneficial initiative long enough for our early-career African scholars, the Iso Lomso [fellows], to work towards a Nobel Prize.”

SU Rector and Vice Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers quoted the first black African Nobel Laureate, Wally Soyinka, who said: “No one is rich enough to buy yesterday. But if you hustle hard, tomorrow could be yours.”

“Africa has been hustling for years,” said De Villiers. “Researchers and thought leaders from our continent have been fighting tooth and nail to take up spaces in the academic world, and to make their voices heard. And with the Nobel in Africa Symposia Series coming to Stellenbosch, to Africa, our voices are being amplified, loud and clear.”

De Villiers highlighted the fact that the Nobel in Africa Outreach Programme – a series of lectures throughout South Africa that takes science to a wider audience – “aligns so beautifully with SU’s vision, to be inclusive, and to advance knowledge in service of society”.

Chairperson of the Wallenberg Foundations, Peter Wallenberg Jr told the story of how his father’s time in Africa as a salesperson for Atlas Copco led to a lifelong love for the continent, and ultimately – in partnership with SU – the establishment of STIAS. The Wallenberg Foundations are some of the most passionate and generous supporters of science in the world and have sponsored the Nobel Foundation for nearly 100 years. It is therefore a vital cog, if not the engine, in the intellectual and philosophical machine that brought Nobel Symposia to Africa.

Last but not least, Executive Director of the Nobel Foundation Victor Helgesen praised the internationalisation of the Nobel Prize and delivered a stirring reminder of the power of inspiration and demonstration to affect real and progressive change, and Dr Judith Omumbo of the Science for Africa Foundation spoke about the urgency and uniqueness of scientific research on the continent, the great strides that were being made to address this need, and the boost they would receive from the Nobel in Africa Initiative.

The Nobel Prize is arguably the most famous and prestigious recognition bestowed upon any individual or organisation today – signifying greatness and celebrating the scientific giants who stood on the shoulders of those before them. With the Nobel in Africa Initiative finally under way, there is a better chance than ever that these future giants will come from Africa.