A sold-out festival about . . . physics?

Perimeter institute is a ‘no-nonsense place,’ says Turok

A sold-out festival about . . . physics?It was another big day at Perimeter Institute. The Ontario government was announcing a $10-million grant for an expansion that will eventually double the staff of the little science colony in Waterloo, Ont. But first, Neil Turok, Perimeter’s new director, was making a side trip to Toronto to fight a losing battle with PowerPoint.

Turok is a clever fellow. South African-born, Cambridge physicist, close friend of Stephen Hawking, author of an audacious “cyclic theory,” which holds that there was no big bang and that instead the universe has been expanding and contracting forever like an awesome squeezebox. But today he was demonstrating to an Empire Club lunch crowd that no force in the universe can make a slide projector work if its batteries are drained. There were awkward pauses. There was much fussing with the recalcitrant projector. The job of spreading the good word about the power of pure science has seen better days.

It’s about to see some of its best days. When Research in Motion co-founder Mike Lazaridis launched Perimeter a decade ago with a $50-million personal donation (his total contribution has since tripled), he decided it should devote half its energy to exploring fundamental questions about the universe—the nature of time, the structure of space, the profound weirdness of quantum phenomena—and half to telling the rest of us what the researchers inside are up to. That so-called “outreach” is a daily mission for Perimeter, but sometimes they go big. Witness the 10th anniversary festival, Quantum to Cosmos: Ideas for the Future. From Oct. 15 to 25, it will invite the public to lectures, demonstrations and films about physics, from the tiniest particles to the depths of space.

I work in Ottawa, where we’re taught that people don’t care about such things. And yet, every public event at the festival sold out lickety-split. The rest of us will have to watch it on the Internet, at q2cfestival.com. So now seemed a good time to catch up with Turok. He has a lot on the go.

The first thing he did on arriving at Perimeter a year ago was to launch Perimeter Scholars International, a master’s-level program, whose first class has drawn 28 students from 17 countries. “That is now becoming widely seen as a huge asset to the institute,” Turok told me. “Even the most advanced and expert scientists love nothing better than to meet very bright students. So it’s a huge draw.”

Perimeter hosts various summer programs for teachers and high school students, but with Perimeter Scholars International it was making education part of its core mission. A surprising move. Turok insists it makes sense. “The lifeblood of our field is brilliant young people. We need new ideas, we need new approaches, we need new energy. And it’s well known that in mathematics and theoretical physics, people often do their most creative work in their early 20s, and often for seemingly accidental reasons.”

As he strengthened Perimeter at the base, Turok has moved to strengthen it at the top. Its bright young faculty is widely admired, but he has added 10 Distinguished Research Chairs, world-leading researchers who will work, teach and lecture at Waterloo for a month or two a year. Twenty more will follow. Stephen Hawking was the first, and while frail health has kept him from visiting, the example of the world’s most famous physicist joining Perimeter has helped lure other less glamorous but equally respected names.

Taken together, Turok’s new program ensures a steady stream of young people and the constant presence of the field’s leading thinkers. “It’s about setting a tone,” Turok said. “Somebody who came to a workshop recently at Perimeter said that when they walked in the building, they got the same feeling they had when they went to Cal Tech. That’s exactly the tone we want to set. This is a no-nonsense place. We are as intellectually rigorous, self-critical and ambitious as we possibly can be.”

On my way to talk with Turok, a colleague suggested I ask him about the Nortel bankruptcy and RIM’s attempt to get some of the telecom giant’s intellectual property. I had a hunch the question wouldn’t go far with this guy. Right I was. “I know nothing about this business,” he said. “And I have no great interest in it. Companies come and go; for me, physics is what survives. It’s precisely the short-lived nature of the commercial world which means that governments and institutions need to think longer-term. What are people going to think about in 100 years? What is our contribution to the future? It won’t be Ericsson or BlackBerry or Apple or Motorola. It will be basic discoveries that set the scene for the next technologies.”

Just as he has no opinion, nor any apparent interest, in Lazaridis’s business, he swears Lazaridis never tells the Perimeter physicists what to investigate. And Turok strongly believes governments must keep the same distance from research they fund. “Prescribe? Nobody prescribed Apple. Apple came out of somebody’s garage. It was an entrepreneurial company. In the same way, you shouldn’t prescribe what scientists do. You should challenge them.

“Just as an outsider from Cambridge, if somebody told me 10 years ago that you could create a world-class centre for theoretical physics in Waterloo, I would have thought you were mad. No matter how much you spent. But Perimeter has done it. I think it was precisely because it came from left field. It ignored all the usual rules.”




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A sold-out festival about . . . physics?

  1. It helps that Perimeter is in Waterloo. Waterloo is full of geeks (I'm one), in a way many other cities its size are not.

  2. Seeing as Stephen Hawking just retired from his post as Cambridge University's Lucasian Professor of Mathematics I'd speculate that he will come for an extended (a year or more) visit.

    I really enjoy PI's Public Lecture series. This one by <ahref="http://www.perimeterinstitute.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=551&Itemid=568&lecture_id=6649&lecture_id=6649"&gt; Bill Phillips of NIST is a particular hoot, blowing stuff up with liquid nitrogen etc.

    • Hawking was slated to spend his summers here – he's still closely associated with Cambridge (tradition says he had to retire from his post at his age), and that's his home. If he recovers his health, it would be a huge boost to the physics community in Canada to get him down for even a few months, but at his age and condition, even that may be hoping for a lot.

    • Ah well he'll only be visiting for a month next summer.
      But a new building at PI will be named for Stephen Hawking.

  3. PI is a wicked awesome place, blackboards on the walls and all, but did they have to make the building so fundamentally ugly? It's like it stands in contrast to the elegance of the universal physical laws being investigated inside.

  4. PI is a wicked awesome place, blackboard-coated walls and all, but did they have to make the building so fundamentally ugly? It's like it stands in contrast to the elegance of the universal physical laws being investigated inside.

    • Contrasted against the nearby University of Waterloo campus that it's closely affliated with, the PI building is gorgeous. They've done a good job with the nearby landscape and integration into Waterloo Park too, I've always considered it one of the better looking buildings in the city.

    • Yes, they did. They were just following the standard Soviet architecture of the rest of Waterloo campus.

      Function over form! I've heard Waterloo recently put another ugly building where the volleyball court at SLC used to be. Ha. So typical. I bet the Village Green is the next to go. Maybe they'll put a parking lot there.

      Ugly buildings is the nature of that town. It's a part of the culture. Let it go.

      • The other ugly buildings are ugly for a reason though: the ECE building looks like a giant computer chip, the physics building looks like a giant slide rule.

        Ok, granted I have no ready answer for the math building. It's just ugly. And Dana Porter library looking like an elevated cube is difficult to explain thematically as well.

        But the PI building takes it to a whole new level. It's not just sort of functional and ugly, or ugly because of some quirky engineering sense of humour – it's actually ugly by design. All those coloured blocks sticking out of the walls?? It's like something out of cakewrecks.com .

      • The other ugly buildings are ugly for a reason though: the ECE building looks like a giant computer chip, the physics building looks like a giant slide rule.

        Ok, granted I have no ready answer for the math building. It's just ugly. And Dana Porter library looking like an elevated cube is difficult to explain thematically as well.

        But the PI building takes it to a whole new level. It's not just sort of functional and ugly, or ugly because of some quirky engineering sense of humour – it's actually ugly by design. It's like something out of cakewrecks.com .

      • The other ugly buildings are ugly for a reason though: the ECE building looks like a giant computer chip, the physics building looks like a giant slide rule.

        Ok, granted I have no ready answer for the math building. It's just ugly. And Dana Porter library looking like a floating cube is difficult to explain thematically as well.

        But the PI building takes it to a whole new level. It's not just sort of functional and ugly, or ugly because of some quirky engineering sense of humour – it's actually ugly by design. All those misshapen blocks sticking out of the walls in random locations? It's like something out of cakewrecks.com .

  5. "Ignoring all the usual rules" is how great advances are made in science as well.

    • "ignoring all the rules" is how we came up with the atomic bomb, too…

      • What are you talking about? The Manhattan Project broke no rules, legal or physics-related, as far as I know.

      • Congratulations on the stupidest comment I have ever seen on the Macleans comment boards.

  6. Thank you for writing about this PW. Very interesting initiative. Jim Balsillie for PM anyone?

  7. Whoops, that should have read 'Mike Lazaridis for PM'. Although Jim would be interesting too.

    • Depending on what you mean by 'interesting,' Balsillie would be waaaaay more interesting.

  8. It's maybe a little premature to gush over an institution that has successfully attracted an absolute load of non-competitive funding and created a splash with its outreach lectures and visitors. Let's see what the scientists can achieve over the next 5-10 years.

    • Most of the people there have already achieved a fair bit. For example, Lee Smolin, a lead on loop quantum gravity has been with PI for quite some time – I actually ran into him at a local bar, where he proceeding to very awkwardly hit on my roommate's girlfriend. He's been publishing rather interesting material on string theory, amongst other things, since arriving at the institute.

      Speaking as someone who's at least loosely affliated with the physics community in Canada, the gushing is by no means premature.

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