Africa needs calculus as well as cookstoves
``It's so easy to become obsolete.'' Prof. James Ezeilo, pausing over a plate of pasta in the dining room of the International Center for Theoretical Physics, speaks with a broad smile. Here, at least, the British-trained mathematician from the University of Nigeria can fight off obsolescence by rubbing shoulders with other researchers visiting this center from around the world and, as he says, recharging his batteries. But his words go to the pith of a problem facing the world's developing nations. It is not exactly ``brain drain'' - although the permanent movement of bright, Western-trained thinkers from south to north remains a serious cause for alarm. It is, instead, a problem for those who don't choose to leave home: How can they keep abreast of the latest developments so they can be productive researchers and stimulating teachers? Professor Ezeilo knows that problem first-hand. A while ago, he says, he arrived in Europe with ``something I thought I'd proved'' - only to find he had duplicated work that had just appeared in a journal his university couldn't afford to order.
But isn't this a rather esoteric problem? After all, what's the relevance of a new insight into differential equations to nations facing malnutrition and poverty on a daily basis? At the very least, some say, the immediate requirement is not for calculus but for cookstoves - and for what is now fashionably called ``technology transfer.''
The developing nations, to be sure, can benefit greatly from new technology. But Ezeilo, like so many of his developing-world colleagues sitting around the table here, sees something even more important: a need not only for a transfer of technology but of science. Technology, after all, also becomes obsolete. The long-term need is for an understanding of the sciences out of which new technologies, especially those adapted to the problems of the developing world, can grow.
``A lot of our countries are in shambles,'' explains Prof. L.K. Shayo, a mathematician from the University of Dar es Salaam. ``Why is that? It may be that the training has not gone far enough.''