Cape Town — Physicist Steven Hawking, who has been described as "the most famous living scientist on the planet," gave his first public lecture in Africa in Muizenberg, Cape Town, on Sunday.
The lecture launched an initiative by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) to find Africa's answer to "the next Einsten". The initiative aims to "unlock and nurture scientific talent across Africa, so that within our lifetimes we are celebrating an African Einstein," according to Neil Turok, founder of AIMS and professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University in Britain.
Hawking said he would be "delighted" if his visit created opportunities to enter maths and science.
"The world of science needs Africa's brilliant talents," he added, "and I look forward to meeting prospective young Einsteins from Africa in the near future."
Hawking, 66, has achieved worldwide recognition not only for his work in theoretical physics, but also for making the complexities of the laws of the universe accessible to the general public through books such as the popular "A Brief History of Time".
Beginning with the questions, "Why are we here?" and "Where did we come from?" Hawking's Sunday address took an audience of scientists, students and members of the public through a brief history of the cosmos, touching on the scientists and philosophers who have shaped our understandings of the universe and how it works, and interspersing scientific explanations with personal anecdotes and jokes.
Confined to a wheelchair by motor neurone disease, which has rendered him almost completely paralysed and unable to communicate using his own voice, Hawking spoke through an electronic voice synthesizer attached to his chair.
"I've given up wondering about his health," said Turok, a close colleague of Hawking, "because he somehow manages to pull through no matter what happens to him... he is a miracle of nature."
Hawking was joined by Nobel laureates in physics David Gross and George Smoot, as well as Michael Griffin, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States.