Decoding the universe
Waterloo is one smart city. The Perimeter is making it smarter.
PAUL WELLS | August 27, 2008 |
When I visited the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo several weeks ago, it was by most accounts an ordinary day. Physicists and mathematicians from around the world had gathered for an interdisciplinary conference on the origins of the universe, so the Black Hole Bistro was serving a buffet instead of the regular sit-down menu. William Phillips, the 1997 Nobel Prize-winner for Physics, was in town to give a public lecture in a nearby high-school auditorium on super-cold temperatures. Like most Perimeter public lectures, it would play to a packed house of 600 ordinary Kitchener and Waterloo residents.
A Perimeter press lady had loaned me an empty workspace where I could leave my stuff while I wandered around the sleek, slate-black building, interviewing the physics think-tank's various thinkers. Presently she tracked me down and announced that she had to kick me out of the little office. "Mike's here and he wants to do some work before the announcement."
Mike, of course, is Mike Lazaridis. The founder and co-CEO of Research In Motion, the people who make BlackBerry smart phones. He founded Perimeter in 1999 and fuelled it with $100 million of his own money a year later.
So it's kind of striking, and oddly charming, that the very hands-on patron of a world-beating institute designed to crack the basic riddles of the cosmos has never asked for a permanent office in the place. It was all the more striking on this particular day, because the "announcement" he was preparing to make was an additional $50-million donation to Perimeter. Add that to the original $100 million and a separate $50-million grant for the University of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing and it's a cool $200 million that Lazaridis has donated to science in Waterloo.
An outsider would be tempted to point to Lazaridis as the biggest single reason why Kitchener/Waterloo does so well in the Canadian Council on Learning's annual Canadian Learning Index — Kitchener is fourth among major cities, and Waterloo is one of the fastest-rising communities in the country. But Lazaridis is always careful to depict himself more as a product of the region's assets than as someone extraordinary.
"Think about it. We've got two major universities and one of the largest colleges in one city. If you consider the whole region and include Guelph, that's another university. Combine all that with this massive co-op learning program that is bringing this transfusion of new talent to the city every four months. Consider the influence the universities have had on the high schools in the region. Look at performance in math competitions, science competitions, computer science competitions. All of this is coming together as a confluence."
Things were already moving quite quickly at Perimeter, but they are about to move even faster. Less than a decade after its launch, it is beginning an astonishing new burst of growth. Neil Turok, one of Britain's most renowned and controversial physicists, is moving to Waterloo as Perimeter's new executive director. He will enhance Perimeter's reputation as the global headquarters for some of science's greatest debates, even as he forges new links between Waterloo and the best young minds in sub-Saharan Africa. Perimeter is expanding its award-winning efforts to explain science to the general public, and to lure high school and university students into a life in science.
Perimeter's ambition is to decode the secrets of the universe, nothing less, and to turn that knowledge to human benefit. "Longing on a large scale," Don DeLillo once wrote, "is what makes history." The people at Perimeter long to understand the cosmos. Simply by making the effort they are already making history.
It would be hard to know where to begin explaining all of this action if one man were not so clearly at the centre of it all: Mike Lazaridis. He sat in this borrowed office, silver-haired and ebullient, pecking at a veggie platter. He swore me to secrecy and handed me the latest BlackBerry model, as he does with evident pride each time we meet. And he explained why, even as RIM heads into a knife fight with Apple and Google for dominance in the high-end smart phone market, he continues to pour his personal fortune into eggheads and chalkboards.
"Throwing your money around again," I said.
"No," he shot back with a grin. "Investing it."
It is not always clear why "investing" would be the right word. Perimeter is not the research branch of Research In Motion. Its mandate is not to build better little keyboards for PDAs. Its faculty, visiting scholars, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students come here to follow their curiosity, free from mandates or deadlines, into the most esoteric corners of human knowledge. The dawn of time. Other dimensions. The neurotic and fundamentally unpredictable behaviour of atoms and their constituent parts. Riddles so vast it is hard to take their measure or even give them names.