On May 11, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences opened its Research Centre. Present were a host of dignitaries, led by Stephen Hawking, Michael Griffin, the current administrator of NASA, and Nobel prize-winners David Gross and George Smoot. A lineup indeed.

I have posted about AIMS before. The bread-and-butter of AIMS is a post-graduate diploma course for African Mathematicians. This broadens the role of the institute to include research. AIMS is set by the sea in a lovely location in Muizenberg, and is the brainchild of Neil Turok, who last year won a TED prize for this and his work on cosmology. TED listens to wishes from its winners - Neil’s declared wish is that the next Einstein come from Africa.

Stephen Hawking arrived - to much gawking by the media. The honoured guests had a short tour of the facilities at AIMS, after which the press and visitors including British Consulate officials listened to a short presentation by Neil Turok. After photo opportunities and coffee and biscuits, we traipsed over to the Muizenberg Pavilion which had seating for 800 to listen to the presentations.

First up was Michael Griffin - a very accomplished engineer who made a 20 minute presentation on NASA, where it has been and where it is going to. He had some fly-throughs of the Universe - pointing out how very tiny and small we are, after visiting galaxy superclusters the Local Group of galaxies is tiny, and we in turn are a tiny part of that. He finished up by telling the students that NASA had some very cool toys, and invited them to use them.. A beautiful presentation, well-delivered.

Next up was Stephen Hawking - who appeared to piece together his speech in sections. All the man can do is twitch his cheek to navigate a menu in front of him - so all the talking was done by the computer. But there were some lengthy pauses between sections, telling me that it was stitched together. He ran over a brief history of cosmology, including his first PHD work, with a good helping of humour. He described how the church accepted research into the origins of the Universe, but balked at the initial singularity of the Big Bang, saying that was the preserve of God. A picture came up of Hawking behind bars.. It gave a nice overview of current theories of cosmology and Quantum Mechanics, and showed a robust mind behind the frailty of his body.

David Gross was up next, and ran over the details of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation including the latest WMAP data. His talk invited the students to find the meaning and causes behind the observed results that we simply accept today because we have no generally accepted explanation.

George Smoot was the last excellent speaker - his Nobel Prize was due to the discovery of minute variations in what was previously thought to be a completely uniform Microwave Background. He had some beautiful computer models - starting with the matter distribution of the CMBR, plugging in values for Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and showing that these computer models accurately predict the condensation of the current Universe, and the filaments that thread through it, and baryonic matter built on the backbone of clumpy dark matter that we cannot see.

The Pavilion was packed, and went away pleased. Myself and some members of the local Linux Users Group retired to a local watering hole, and someone there commented on the flavour of agnosticism in some of the talks - Stephen Hawking mentioned it, and a question from the audience asked whether our self-awareness made us inherently ‘special’ - Gross (I think) shot that one down as ‘giving up’ on cosmology.