Meetings that made history… When Stephen Hawking met Nelson Mandela

When theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking met South African politician and anti-apartheid campaigner Nelson Mandela, they discussed the future of an important new initiative to train more scientists across Africa.

Their momentous meeting took place to expand a far-reaching educational programme called the Next Einstein in May 2008. The programme was being established by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences – known as AIMS – in Muizenberg, Cape Town.

Its aim was to discover new mathematics and science talent all over Africa, enabling students to complete their studies at the centre for postgraduate training and research. They were then empowered to use their knowledge and skills to help Africa to achieve scientific, educational and economic self-sufficiency.

Stephen Hawking and Nelson Mandela

When Oxford-born Professor Hawking died in March this year, aged 76, AIMS released a statement praising his continued support of the Next Einstein initiative, which has gone from strength to strength over the past decade.

Professor Hawking was described as a “huge supporter of AIMS” and his only visit to South Africa was to participate in furthering the Next Einstein programme.

His public lecture at the Muizenberg Pavilion attracted massive crowds, with people having to be turned away from the packed venue. He also met the AIMS students and chatted informally with them.

The highlight of his visit was his meeting with Mr Mandela in Johannesburg. It was a special occasion, as they were said to share many qualities including intellect, charm and personal warmth.

They met over afternoon tea with other prominent figures, including David Block (a professor at the University of Witwatersrand in the School of Computational and Applied Mathematics), AIMS founder Neil Turok (a mathematical physics professor at Cambridge University) and Pik Botha (a former Cabinet Minister in Mr Mandela’s government).

Professor Hawking and Mr Mandela expressed their mutual admiration and respect for each other. Professor Hawking was an extraordinary leading light in the world of theoretical physics and Mr Mandela was an inspirational leader, who had spent all his adult life successfully campaigning against apartheid. He had served as South Africa’s president from 1994 in the country’s first democratic election, stepping down in 1999, at the age of 81.

Stephen Hawking

Professor Hawking praised the way in which Mr Mandela had found a peaceful solution to a situation that had appeared to be “doomed to disaster”. He described bringing about the end of apartheid as “one of the great achievements of the 20th century.”

The duo discussed changes and developments for the Next Einstein programme, which at the time had already enabled 160 young scientists from 30 African countries to graduate. A further 53 students were completing the programme at the time of Professor Hawking’s visit.

Professor Hawking said that the world of science needed Africa’s brilliant talents, so if his visit helped to create opportunities for more students to enter science and maths, he would be delighted.

His involvement with AIMS didn’t end after his meeting with Mr Mandela. He hosted a dinner to support AIMS in Los Angeles, inviting many prominent figures from the world of science and entertainment, including actors Morgan Freeman and Sidney Poitier, musician Quincy Jones, a number of AIMS alumni and AIMS’ president Thierry Zomahoun.

The meeting between Stephen Hawking and Nelson Mandela could have a major impact on the future of science. Since the momentous meeting took place, further AIMS centres to host the Next Einstein initiative have opened in Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, Rwanda and Tanzania. More than 1,500 students from 43 African countries have successfully graduated.

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