Mind-bending mysteries at the Perimeter Institute - Macleans.ca

Mind-bending mysteries at the Perimeter Institute

What the big thinkers know, what they’re trying to learn, and how close we may be to a genuine revolution


Aug 22, 2013 - Jacob Barnett; Perimeter Institute; Paul Wells story.

Not even the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., is immune to the rhythms of the seasons. Summer there this year was quiet and casual, with several regular faces away on vacation. And yet there were plenty of signs that the little think tank is heading into an ambitious new era.

Stephen Hawking was on a six-week working visit from Cambridge, England. Every day you could see a caregiver pushing his wheelchair along the footpaths outside the building at surprising speed. The most famous scientist in the world does not like to dawdle. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis has left him no control over most of his body. Twitching a cheek muscle to compose even a short sentence with his speech synthesizer can take 20 minutes. So he is keenly aware of wasted time. “I encouraged lots of people to go and talk to him,” Neil Turok, Perimeter’s South African director and a Hawking friend and colleague of long standing, told me.

“A lot of people did. Several of them came away saying, ‘I went and explained to him what I’m doing—and he didn’t seem very interested!’ I entirely sympathize with him. He has very high standards and if you start telling him something that doesn’t sound plausible he’ll very quickly tell you, ‘I’ve had enough.’ ”

Leonard Susskind, a white-bearded and soft-spoken Stanford University prof, was on a similar extended visit. Susskind has no human story of physical courage to match Hawking’s, but to physicists he is in Hawking’s intellectual class. He is a pioneer in the surreal but influential field of string theory, which describes a universe made of tiny vibrating strings curled up across many more dimensions than the three we know. Hawking and Susskind are two of Perimeter’s 20 Distinguished Research Chairs, eminent international theorists who visit Waterloo occasionally to work without the distractions of home.

Susskind spent much of his time in the third-floor lounge surrounded by groups of young scientists still in graduate school or fresh out. They would show Susskind their work, neat lines of equations on notepaper or hectic scrawls on the lounge’s blackboard. (Perimeter has hundreds of blackboards, in every office, conference room and coffee nook. They all get a lot of use.) Susskind’s questions would make his young visitors stare at the paper or blackboard for long minutes, as if hoping an answer would appear.

The day I arrived, the inaugural class of Perimeter Scholars International (PSI), an intensive master’s-level course in theoretical physics for students from around the world, held their convocation after a year’s intensive study. One of the most impressive was Bruno Le Floch, a 20-year-old ponytailed Frenchman who was one of the younger students in his class. “He’s just a genius,” Turok said. But he is also just a kid. So rather than dive into a theory career, Le Floch will spend the next year teaching in Cape Town at the African Institute for Mathematical Studies, which Turok founded in hopes of giving Africa’s best students a reason to stay at home and lead the continent’s intellectual development.

One day Stephen Harper visited Perimeter to announce a $20-million federal investment in Turok’s African initiative. One rarely has to wait long at Perimeter before somebody comes along with a gift of money. Often the visitor is a local boy who made good, Mike Lazaridis, the founder and co-CEO of Research in Motion.

Years ago, Lazaridis decided to put much of his fortune into an institute that would study the questions that fascinated him when he was a University of Waterloo engineering student. On one hand, Einstein’s theories of space, time and gravity. On the other, the odd but powerful insights of quantum mechanics. In 2000, with $100 million from Lazaridis and $20 million from two other RIM partners, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics set up shop in the old post office building on King Street.

Since then it has grown steadily. In 2004, Perimeter moved into a slate-black 6,000-sq.-m building on the shore of Silver Lake in Waterloo Park. Already this summer, work crews were building an extension that will nearly double the institute’s floor space. Its faculty size will triple.

(Current full-time faculty is only 11, but if you add faculty it shares with area universities, visiting scholars, post-docs and graduate students, there are about 100 people thinking in the building on an ordinary day, and often about as many stopping through for a conference or seminar.) Enrolment at Perimeter Scholars International will double. The Distinguished Research Chairs will grow in number to 30.

But what do the people at Perimeter actually do? Many assume the institute must be the research and development branch of Research in Motion. This is not even remotely true. There are no laboratories at Perimeter. It has no equipment for manufacturing anything. There is very little in the sleek four-storey building except boxes of chalk and an excellent bistro.

But establishing what the Perimeter theorists don’t do is easier than explaining what they do.

Even they have learned to leave it vague. “When the neighbours ask, I say I just want to understand why the universe works the way it does,” said Chris Fuchs, a tremendously engaging Texan who has been a visiting scholar at Perimeter since 2007. “And that’s when they usually say, ‘Isn’t it great that Stephen Hawking’s there?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, it is.’ ”

What Perimeter’s theorists do is think, singly and in groups. Sometimes they scribble equations on the chalkboards to enlist colleagues and visitors in their attempts to solve some new or nagging riddle. Once I passed Fuchs’s office on my way to the third-floor pop machine. He was staring intently, slack-jawed, at the chalkboard that makes up one wall of his office. When I returned 20 minutes later he had not moved.

What they think about, from assorted conceptual angles that make up the subdisciplines of modern theoretical physics, are ways to refine, extend and, ideally, reconcile the two great early 20th-century advances in physics—general relativity and quantum mechanics. Relativity refers to Albert Einstein’s realization that space and time are aspects of the same thing, as are matter and energy. Einstein described how massive bodies like stars warp the space-time around them, bending the fabric of existence in a way we experience as gravity.

Quantum mechanics is the product of research into the behaviour of the component parts of atoms by Einstein’s contemporaries—Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and others. What they found is so odd it still puzzles physicists. A particle can sometimes be in one place and, in a way, somewhere else at the same time. Observing a particle to find out where it is destroys any chance of knowing for sure where it’s going. Two particles can become “entangled” so that a change to one particle will be reflected in a change to the other, no matter how distant.

In nearly a century of investigation, researchers have made great use of these odd insights.
Electronics depends on the quantum behaviour of electrons moving through semiconductors.
The same phenomena drive lasers, DVD players, computers, electron microscopes. The Nobel-winning physicist Leon Lederman has said that quantum mechanics is responsible for one-third of U.S. GDP.

The big conundrum in physics is that the great breakthroughs of relativity and quantum theory do not play well together. Quantum mechanics is good at describing just about everything matter does—except gravity. And Einstein’s relativity theory breaks down at the very short distances where quantum phenomena operate.

This apparent incompatibility between great discoveries is catnip to physicists. They know that every time connections have been found between phenomena that once seemed unrelated, somebody soon figured out how to put the discovery to practical use. In 1864, James Clerk Maxwell showed that electricity and magnetism are the same thing. His discovery of electromagnetism led to the invention of radio. Einstein’s unification of matter and energy in 1905 made the atom bomb possible. “It’s never been true that you could look at the universe in new ways and not see something unexpected,” Cliff Burgess, a particle theorist who divides his time between Perimeter and McMaster University, told me.

Perimeter’s faculty and visitors poke at the boundaries of their disciplines in any number of different ways. What makes Perimeter unique is the extent to which different subdisciplines are given substantial resources and thrown together in ways designed to encourage co-operation and confrontation. But if a common theme links much of their work this year, it is the belief that a reality check is coming. A generation of theorizing will soon be tested against hard data from significant new experiments.

Nothing motivates a theorist more than new information from the real world, especially if it upends what everyone thought they knew.

Almost everyone in physics believes a moment like that will arrive within the next few years.

The largest scientific experiment anyone has ever built is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator 27 km in circumference that lies under the border between France and Switzerland. Two of Perimeter’s youngest, newest hires have won a disproportionate influence over how data from the LHC will be collected and disseminated.

Last year, Philip Schuster and Natalia Toro applied to be post-doctoral fellows at Perimeter. She’s Colombian, he’s American. They’re a couple. They finished their Ph.D.s at Harvard in 2007.
They’d been working in junior positions at the Stanford Linear Accelerator near San Francisco. “If you look at them on paper they’re not really that unusual,” Turok told me. “Citations are not high. They haven’t published very many papers.” So they’re untested, not prolific and not influential. Yet they sent glowing letters of recommendation from scientists Turok trusts, including B.J. Bjorken, a leading particle physicist. “He just said, ‘These people are exceptional.’ ”

The reason Schuster and Toro haven’t been publishing papers is that they have been working with the huge experimental teams at LHC and other particle accelerators in other countries. “That’s extremely unusual,” Turok said. “I mean, I did my Ph.D. in a particle physics group, with an experimental physics group next door, at Imperial College. And the two never talked. We never went to their seminars. They never came to ours.”

Theorists get to abstract the world down to dots and vectors on a chalkboard. They work alone or with a few colleagues. Modern experiments are infernal contraptions run by committee. “Everything becomes driven by the nuts and bolts of the experiment. ‘Who’s going to buy the aluminium tubes?’ And the theorist takes one look at this and moves in the other direction.”

But the LHC is worth extra effort. It is not just another ring under the ground. Particle accelerators smash streams of elementary particles together at tremendous speeds, then pick through the rubble for hints about forces too subtle to measure any other way. LHC is so big so it can collide protons at much higher energy than earlier experiments. The higher the energy, the smaller the size of the phenomena that can be observed. This matters because some particles decay in an instant into other particles. If you want to see them you have to catch them in the tiny moment before they transform into something more mundane.

The LHC started operating in 2008 but soon ran into significant technical problems. It will operate at only half its designed power until 2012. The distance it will probe once the bugs are ironed out is 10¯17 cm, about 1,000 times smaller than the protons that are colliding. It has taken collider designers decades to get this small, and there are all kinds of hints that this scale is significant in ways larger scales weren’t. “Some of the pressing mysteries that we’re trying to explain are, what is the origin of mass? Why is gravity so weak compared to the other interactions? And also, are there extra dimensions or do we just have four space-time dimensions?” Schuster told me via Skype from a particle accelerator in Virginia. These are huge questions. Confirmation of other dimensions would turn science on its ear—as would the inability to find extra dimensions at this tiny length scale. Knowing why gravity behaves differently from other forces might, one day, make it possible to channel gravity the way we use electricity in every wall socket.

There are strong theoretical reasons to believe the answers to some of those questions lie way down at the length scale the LHC was built to probe. And most theorists suspect there will be surprises, evidence of phenomena nobody even thought to look for. In recent decades smaller colliders were mostly built to confirm strong predictions. Now, “the situation is not like what it was back in the early ’80s,” Schuster said. Back then, experimentalists were simply confirming very precise predictions made by a well-understood set of theories and observations called the Standard Model. And indeed, when colliders started operating at the length scale needed to test these predictions, they found the particles they were expecting.

“The situation now could not be more different,” Schuster said. “Essentially we have no solid, clear hints for what’s going on at the length scale the LHC will probe. We have a lot of ideas out there. And certainly we’ve had time to develop them and there’s quite a few floating around. But if you were to survey theorists, ‘What will we find at the LHC?,’ you would fill out a whole spectrum of answers.

“Nobody knows, okay? We’re very much in a situation where experiment is going to have to lead the way.”

Now here’s the thing about data from the LHC. Each experiment involves trillions of particles. Measuring the results produces vast amounts of data, 15 million gigabytes a year, enough to fill 94,000 of the largest iPods. It’s a complex and delicate business. Sometimes parts of the collector work properly and others don’t. Sometimes an angle is wider than expected or a particle seems to have more momentum than predicted. That is exactly what the evidence for strange new forces would look like. But on any given occasion it could just be math that hasn’t been triple-checked properly. And if a theorist catches wind of one of these false leads, pretty soon it’ll be on the front page of the Daily Telegraph or the New York Times, false reports of a revolution forcing hasty news conferences to set the record straight, confusing everyone, undermining the credibility of the whole enterprise.

So experimental groups never publish their raw data. “Theorists do not have access to the data,” Schuster said. “They are forbidden from seeing the data. And the experimentalists actually do not show most of what they see.” They’re like a college of cardinals who send up a puff of white smoke only when they are sure they have found something new, or can cross a theory off the list by showing that something the theory predicted has failed to turn up. All of this makes the experimental groups’ method for reporting their results important: it’s the only window a world of theorists have into the results.

This is where Toro and Schuster come in. “The way that we are used to doing things is, you have a theory, you try to work it out in detail, you make predictions for what a hadron collider will see, and then it’s sort of a binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’: you either see a certain feature in the data or you don’t,” Schuster said.

That was good enough at lower energy levels when physicists were looking for confirmation of strong predictions. But nobody knows what the LHC will find, and candidate theories are lined up around the block. It will take forever to check every theory one by one. And what’s crucial is that there may be something going on that no theory predicts.

“What we need is basic information,” Schuster said. “Not hyper-refined, detailed information.” So Schuster and Toro, along with their Harvard thesis adviser Nima Arkani-Hamed and other colleagues, spent three years working on a method for describing the results of a particle collision much more generically. There are particles of such-and-such mass, their decay rate was this fast, they scattered in this pattern, and so on.

On the basis of those early reports, theorists with competing ideas will all be able to look at the clues from the LHC, discard some theories that don’t fit and come up with new questions for the next round of experiments. It should be far more efficient than an endless list of yes-no questions.

To change the approach, Toro and Schuster had to win the trust of experimentalists who outnumbered them. The two young theorists spent two months in Europe with one of the LHC experimental groups, a group of 40 researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“We showed them these ideas. They were certainly still very skeptical. But over the course of those two months we learned quite a bit more about how analysis is done inside the collaborations,” Schuster said. “We refined some of the ideas we had had before. And we also started working through exercises, test cases.”

They kept returning to Europe for two years to work on their ideas, which became increasingly popular “largely because it made their task of characterizing the data easier.” In the middle of their courtship with the people who run the largest experiment in history, Toro and Schuster applied for post-doc positions at Perimeter. After a little due diligence Turok decided to oblige.

“We offered them post-docs. We knew to get them we’d have to at least offer them five-year post-docs. Princeton then offered them three-year post-docs at the Institute for Advanced Study, which is considered one of the best places in the world. They really wanted to go to Princeton. So at that point we changed our offer to junior faculty.” It worked. Toro and Schuster joined Perimeter.

It was a bold move to grab two kids who’d been buried in caverns for two years. “But they are exactly the kind of people we want to recruit. They are driven primarily by the desire to make a genuine discovery, not by the need to publish papers. That’s exactly what we’re after. That’s the whole culture I’m trying to install here.”

Why? Look at the result. “We’re paying, you know, two junior-faculty salaries and we’re right at the heart of this multi-billion-dollar experiment.”

Turok’s ambition is to extend Perimeter’s influence with a series of similar moves. Boyish and jug-eared, he was already a leading theorist of the universe’s origins when Lazaridis and the Perimeter board hired him in 2008. He brought with him something else—the clout of a respected practitioner. Hawking’s visits result from his personal friendship with Turok.

The institution’s new five-year plan carries the title “Expanding the Perimeter.” When a circle’s perimeter expands it grows in every direction. And so with this place. “When he announced PSI,” said Rob Myers, a string theorist who acted as interim director before Turok arrived, “they announced it in October and by May the first class was here. Everything’s moving so quickly.”

The PSI, the master’s-level educational program, is not a vanity project. “He’s trying to strategically pick off the brightest kids, before they go to Harvard, Cal Tech, MIT,” a Perimeter staffer said. Competition for talent preoccupies Turok. The world does have other theoretical physics institutes. Most are older and university-affiliated. Perimeter has to be clever about competing. “When we try to recruit people, we’re always looking slightly under the radar of other institutions,” Turok said. “And we invite [candidates for recruitment] to come here and give a series of lectures. It’s our standard way of recruiting.”

This poses a problem. Perimeter records video of every lecture and posts it online within days. “Stanford, Harvard, Princeton are watching our lectures to see how a given recruit did. I know this for a fact,” Turok states.

He dismisses this leak in his human-resources pipeline with a rueful chuckle. He fights back by making Perimeter more competitive. He hopes soon to begin announcing five Perimeter Research Chairs, full-time endowed positions designed to lure five world-leading theorists from their perches abroad. Each chair will be endowed at the $10-million level so the chairholders can hire younger colleagues to form study groups. Turok is already talking to potential chairs, and to corporate sponsors who would fund each position.

But science has usually been a young person’s game. Stephen Hawking was in his late 20s when he began making breakthrough discoveries about black holes. So even as he courts the field’s most established names, Turok continues to take flyers on young recruits who use audacious math to model complex processes.

Pedro Vieira from Portugal is one. “We hired this guy six months out of his Ph.D. Most of our scientific advisory committee felt this was very unwise. He’s just so young.” Another, Freddy Cachazo from Venezuela, has found that complex numbers produce elegant solutions for predicting the way particles will scatter in a collider. That’s just weird. A complex number has an imaginary component, such as the square root of a negative number. It’s not at all clear why non-real numbers produce such nice predictions for real-world events.

“It’s real hard-core stuff,” Turok said of his new recruits’ work. “Nobody will accuse Perimeter of being flaky, soft, pretty much philosophy, etc. This is pretty much the opposite. And in my view, that’s a good thing. I don’t want this to be a philosophy centre. It’s got to be a real hard-core place.”

But perhaps because I’m never going to understand the math, what struck me again and again about these people was how much heart they bring to the task at hand. One afternoon I attended the weekly meeting of Perimeter’s loop quantum gravity group. Lee Smolin chaired the meeting. Smolin was one of Perimeter’s first faculty members and at only 55 he is one of the oldest. He is also easily the most controversial. His 2006 book The Trouble With Physics is a lament about the predominance of string theory. The discipline’s mathematical complexities attract a lot of what Smolin calls, with a measure of disdain, “master craftspeople.” The problem, he argued, is that string theory gets lost in the tall grass of problem solving for its own sake. It becomes too easy to lose track of the big questions, the origin of the universe, the nature of space and time. That’s “exactly what you get,” Smolin wrote, “when a lot of highly trained master craftspeople try to do the work of seers.”

Those were fighting words. Everyone at Perimeter is heartily sick of the controversy Smolin kicked up. The surprise was that Smolin is such a soft-spoken fellow, interested in art and architecture, a bit of a mother hen to the institute’s younger scholars.

“What’s powerful about Perimeter is that it draws strength from oppositions,” Smolin said. “So we have a good string theory group—and a good group in non-string theory approaches to quantum gravity. That’s very important. And we’ve developed an atmosphere to nurture that opposition: we’re very friendly, we’re very supportive. We’ve never had a political fight here over, you know, ‘Hire that person, hire this person.’ And we’re hard on each other. In a proper scientific way, not an unfriendly or competitive way.”

Some of that spirit was on display at the meeting of Smolin’s group. Loop quantum gravity is an alternative to string theory among attempts to reconcile gravity and quantum mechanics. It involves something called spin foam. For the sake of decorum I’ll stop there. I flunked out of second-year chemistry 24 years ago. Most of what the dozen men around the table said would not have been less comprehensible to me if I were listening in on the clicks and whistles of sentient dolphins. But the mood was one of gentle, playful challenge.

Smolin went around the table, asking everyone to report in turn on their current work or, if they prefer, on something they’ve read or heard that intrigues them. He interrupted the first speaker almost immediately: “Plain English, please. No jargon.” That led everyone to use a little less jargon. Smolin continued around the table. “That’s not a new idea,” he chided one colleague. A visiting third-year undergrad from Penn State University, the youngest person in the room, reported on his work. Smolin did the same when his turn came. There was no visible hierarchy by experience. The conference room’s six chalkboards filled up quickly.

Soon it was Rob Spekkens’s turn to speak. Spekkens belongs to Perimeter’s quantum foundations group. He does not normally attend Smolin’s group meeting. Today, he had a thought experiment that was nagging him. He drew two stick figures, Alice and Bob, and said he needed a mechanism for passing one bit of information between them, a simple zero or one, but no more. Did anyone have any ideas? The loop quantum gravity group pondered the riddle in silence.

If anyone can usually be counted on to ask a simple question that stumps a room, it is the quantum-foundations people. By now, 80 years after the first discoveries in quantum mechanics, the weird behaviour of tiny particles is well documented and reliably described by mathematics. But that’s not the same as understanding how it works. How can a thing be in two places at once? How can the state of a system depend on whether anyone’s looking at it?
To many physicists these are fussy questions with little interest. What matters is that the math works. “In many places foundations was considered a lost cause because there were no experiments that suggested quantum mechanics was wrong,” Smolin said. “But there’s a persistent sense among many people that quantum mechanics is incomplete or confusing. Or there’s something left out of the story. That’s mostly been pushed to the sides of academic science. It’s a very important part of Perimeter that it’s here in a big way.”

Spekkens, an easygoing man with red hair and beard, studied physics and philosophy at McGill before master’s and doctoral studies in physics at the University of Toronto. It is not easy for young physicists to turn their interest into a career. Many wind up at software companies or in brokerage firms, calculating the motion of the financial markets. Spekkens decided he was young enough to worry about his career later. “I said to myself, for the next five years I’m going to do what I want to do. And if that’s the end of my career in physics, so be it.” Luckily for him, Perimeter Institute was getting going. A post-doc appointment in 2002 led to a faculty appointment for Spekkens in 2008.

One muggy evening I went along with Spekkens and Latham Boyle, a cosmologist from Ohio who joined the Perimeter faculty this year, to visit Chris Fuchs. We went to Fuchs’s house because last Fathers’ Day his wife and daughters bought a $35 chalkboard from Kijiji and mounted it on the front porch. It seemed like a good place for a chat.

“Chris Fuchs sees himself as the embodiment of the American tradition of pragmatism reborn as a physicist,” Smolin told me. “He’s intellectually in a very interesting place. Not a lot of academic centres would include him.” Philosophy books far outnumber physics texts in the old hardwood bookcase in Fuchs’s study. There are books by and about Heidegger, C.S. Lewis, Santayana, Wittgenstein. Mostly the little library is a shrine to William James, the 19th-century pragmatist who held that the value of anything depends on its usefulness to the observer. “The knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foothold anywhere, and passively reflecting an order that he comes upon and finds simply existing,” James wrote in 1878. “The knower is an actor, and coefficient of the truth . . . In other words, there belongs to mind, from its birth upward, a spontaneity, a vote. It is in the game.”

Those words amazed Fuchs when he first read them. They read like a forecast of quantum theory. “This is a participatory universe,” Fuchs told our little crowd as we headed out to the porch and the chalkboard. “The big bang is here all around us. It’s not a written-out story.”
That made Latham Boyle chuckle. “I didn’t realize what a mystical figure you are,” he told Fuchs. “You should be on a mountaintop.”

But just about everyone at Perimeter has a mystical side. Fuchs had sent me links to some theoretical physics blogs. I mentioned that one blogger suggests the human mind may simply not be sophisticated enough to understand the nature of the universe. Boyle cut in. “Bah!”
I persisted. Rabbits don’t understand the universe, after all. Earthworms don’t. Sure, humans evolved language, but despite its glories language began as just another tool to help us find mates and food. It may be hubris on our part to believe we’re cut out for decoding the universe just because we can order out for pizza.

Boyle didn’t like that any better. “Aaaah!”

Why couldn’t he believe the universe might simply be beyond our grasp? “It’s an article of faith,” he said bashfully.

“Almost everyone at PI is doing physics in what I would call a more romantic style than other places,” Spekkens said. That certainly includes Boyle.

While others concentrate on tiny particles, he studies black holes for the clues they can offer into the origin of the universe. The distinction between the tiny and the vast isn’t as stark as it appears. The same forces that operate at the smallest scale have affected the growth of the cosmos, so that studying either extreme gives insights into the other.

Boyle is designing an instrument for measuring gravity waves from orbiting pairs of black holes that he’s dubbed the “perfect porcupine,” because it would have spines that stick out and it would be highly symmetrical. He is haunted by symmetry, by the way the universe almost always turns out to be more beautiful and simple than people expected.

Einstein’s equation for space-time is a non-linear partial differential equation. Those are really hard. Einstein didn’t expect anyone ever to find a solution. But successive generations of theorists have found solutions to the equations under many circumstances. One such solution, from 1963, “has many, many special properties that you had no right to expect,” Boyle told me in his office before we decamped to Fuchs’s house. “It’s like a diamond . . .” But he stopped himself, worried he was sounding silly.

Now on the porch he finished the thought. A diamond is beautiful, of course, in large part because it is symmetrical. And if you shine light through a diamond, the crystal splits the white light into a rainbow spectrum: it helps you understand something about light. Physics keeps working the same way. It helps to explain the world in ways that just happen to be elegant and symmetrical.

And any pursuit of physics that loses sight of these romantic considerations is, in some way, barren. “There must be some reason why the greatest breakthroughs came in times and places that weren’t single-mindedly obsessed with the pursuit of physics,” Boyle said. Why does the Large Hadron Collider matter? Is it because it might find the Higgs boson, a particle that adds mass to matter? “That’s the most boring answer you could possibly give!” Boyle said.

The real answer, of course, is that there are new mysteries behind the threshold of 10¯17 cm and a shot at tackling the riddles that will follow. What drives these people, it seemed to me, is something simple and admirable. They have managed to get further than most of us do in investigating the questions that begin, “I wonder why . . .” The payoff may be a technological revolution, someday, that would rival radio and transistors for its ability to change everything. But the real value is in what doesn’t change: the ageless desire of great minds to get in the game.


Mind-bending mysteries at the Perimeter Institute

  1. They decry the relidion of belief in God or gods, yet they worship the religion of technology. I wonder which benefits mankind the most.

    • Given the choice between engaging in a rational and skeptical examination of the world around us or taking the word of a bunch of illiterate bronze-age goatherds who heard voices in their heads telling them to kill people, does anyone really think we're better off believing in the latter?

    • Oh well, that's easy.

      Science flies you to the moon.

      Religion flies you into buildings.

      • OK; that made me laugh!

    • there are those who think that science reveals "God"…

        • Einstein was an atheist.

          • In the sense that he derides the notion of an anthropomorphic god perhaps, but it seems to me, based on many of his quotes, that he was much more agnostic than anyone on either side of the atheist/theist false dichotomy is willing to admit.

          • From a correspondence between Ensign Guy H. Raner and Albert Einstein in 1945 and 1949. Einstein responds to the accusation that he was converted by a Jesuit priest: "I have never talked to a Jesuit prest in my life. I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist." "I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one.You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from religious indoctrination received in youth." Freethought Today, November 2004

            "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." From a letter Einstein wrote in English, dated 24 March 1954. It is included in Albert Einstein: The

          • I'm not sure in what spirit you've posted the quotes, but I'm going to take it as agreement.

            I don't believe in a "personal god" either, but I also don't share the existential non-belief of atheists and their typically materialistic perspective, so I tend to call myself agnostic. Unsurprisingly then I tend to view Einstein's many quotes from this perspective, including that above. I guess that could be a confirmation bias or schema on my part but I don't think so.

            Look at the universe we live in. Most of us agree that it likely started from one source or point, from which we have a universe replete with trillions upon trillions of star systems. From the barren rock of planets formed from this star matter has arisen conscious life that can reflect upon all of it.

            Okay so we don't agree on whether the universe arose as a result of conscious manipulation, or whether there is a collective unifying consciousness on some level, but really, aren't we getting a little caught up on the details given it's one of those points we can't really test? LOL

          • Agnostics are just people who can't make up their minds. Like mugwumps. LOL

            Hawking said recently that the universe can and does exist without the need for a creator to either make it or keep it running.

            We haven't begun to look into it enough to know details, but we will.

          • From my perspective agnostics are the only ones being honest about the state of our knowledge. LOL :P

            Hawking can say what he likes, but until we have a falsifiable cosmology that can successfully close the loop we can't even come close to knowing whether the universe has it's own collective consciousness element.

            In fact, I would argue that until we understand the source of our own consciousness, investigating the possibility of other forms of consciousness is simply out of reach.

          • Also, just because we don't need a God here on earth doesn't mean we don't have a God running the Universe.

            But I'm agnostic with you. I like this 'personal God' thing you guys are talking about. I hadn't heard that before, but it absolutely says what I've been nebulously thinking for a long time.

          • Then may the Force be with you. LOL

          • Yes, you have some free time yet to indulge in religion, although I'm sure even after that people will find other excuses for doing so..

            Goodness knows they are certainly trying to do that with evolution. LOL

            But simply saying understanding is 'out of reach' is definitely not on.

            Because that's what cave people said about the origin of thunder and lightning.

          • "…But simply saying understanding is 'out of reach' is definitely not on. Because that's what cave people said about the origin of thunder and lightning…"

            Except of course that you've missed my point.

            I said: "until we understand the source of our own consciousness, investigating the possibility of other forms of consciousness is simply out of reach…"

            This is a perfectly true point. It's similar to saying that until we cracked the atom, nuclear generator's were simply out of reach, which is hardly deniable.

            So again, it is impossible to investigate the existence of extended or universal consciousness while we still don't understand the root of our own consciousness.

            That is not to say we are without theories however, or that we have failed to make progress in our understanding of our own consciousness. The theory of quantum consciousenss for example seems to be the leading contender at the moment, and if true, then the basic experiencial qualities of consciousness arise at the Planck level.

          • And of course, we all know that Hawkings is God…;)…

            I would suggest to you to consider the theology that underpins Judaism, Christianity (Catholicism more precisely) and Islam about the essence of "God" as argued for millenia, rather than the sunday school notion of God with the white flowing beard that you are arguing against, just as "…the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from religious indoctrination received in youth…".

          • No, Hawkings is just a man.

            And 'God' is just a fairy tale.

          • A "prophet", then – an epithet applied by those who follow the "religion" of atheism.

            "God" a "fairy tale"? Perhaps…but probably no more than the belief that the complexity of the universe can be reduced to a series of dynamical equations, though the search is noble enough.

            BTW…have you ever heard of Asimov's short story entitled "the last question"?

          • Atheism isn't a belief…it's the lack of a belief…there is no religion involved.

            All math is adjective…it does not change the subject.

            Yes, I'm sure most people have read Asimov's 'last question'….however that has nothing to do with it. Asimov was also an atheist.

          • Hmmm…a lack of belief that seeks to justify itself rather than simply let things slide…

            All math is adjective…it does not change the subject.

            Hmmm…I can't decide whether you've accidentally become clever here…

          • There may not be any religion involved, but there is clearly a belief. You believe that there is no God; no creator; that all this existence is an incredible confluence of math. As you can't PROVE that (yet), it's a belief.

          • You may want to read the actual essay before commenting on it.

            Einstein was certainly an atheist, and clearly rejected the existence of any deity that acts as a creator or source of morality. At the same time, he was also a very deeply spiritual person, describing what he (rather unfortunately) calls the "cosmic religious feeling" that comes from attaining a deeper understanding of the universe and our place within it. He goes on to describe how science (as well as art) are crucial to attaining this feeling. In this sense, he seems close to the "nature-as-god" beliefs of philosophers like Spinoza.

          • In his era he'd have been hounded to death for openly announcing his atheism…and I think he figured he'd been hounded enough for his other views.

            So he talked about a sense of awe and wonder for the universe and so on, and let religious people see it as they wished.

          • I'm not disputing that he'd have been persecuted for announcing his atheism, as he almost certainly would have. I often wonder (rather pointlessly, I admit) what other great figures from history were closet atheists.

            What I do have a hard time believing is that he described that sense of awe and wonder just as a way of obfuscating his beliefs to the point where people would leave him alone. The kind of ""spirituality" he describes is actually quite common among scientists, and I see no reason to doubt that he really did think that way.

          • There are a lot of them actually…there is even a list. With some of them it's hard to prove because they knew better than to leave papers about, or talk too openly about it.

            I have a sense of awe and wonder about the universe…it's big and beautiful, so of course we do, and it makes people feel good….you can feel that about a lot of things actually, but calling it 'spiritual' is misleading I think. Maybe it's just the only word people can come up with.

    • I really don't understand why people see this as a religion vs. science issue. I want to know the truth, both in my religion, and in my universe. The two are not incompatible. Science plots the points of my exterior world, religion my interior. I'm fascinated by both.

      Of course, I'm part of a tradition that doesn't mind finding out that the physical universe works differently than our scriptures say. Doesn't matter one bit to me, personally. Nothing science will find will have much of anything to do with my religious concern – soteriology. The rest of it is uninteresting to me, religiously. Scientifically, however, I find it to be fascinating!

    • High-energy Physics isn't really about technology nor can it hope to explain to our place in the universe. Its more like fancy bird-watching and about as useful. You learn things, but they tend to be kind of boring or over-complicated and there are too many obvious things that can never be explained (like what happened before the Big Bang). The best you can hope for is to see some exotic stuff and maybe appreciate the world a little more.

      • "Before the Big Bang" is always a tricky one because technically that's a time measurement, and time didn't exist before the Big Bang according to what I've read. So on closer examination you realize that the question supposes to measure something that doesn't exist! There's nothing before time because there was no time.

        It's like asking what's north of north? Well, nothing actually, or if you really stretch it, maybe south is north of north? LOL

        So sometimes we may be asking the wrong questions, or perhaps the questions themselves aren't as meaningful as we think in the grand scheme of things, and that is one of the complications of developing coherent cosmological theories.

  2. That was an excellently well written article, Wells. Thanks. It should be held up as the standard by which your journalistic colleagues explain anything to do with science.

    "That was good enough at lower energy levels when physicists were looking for confirmation of strong predictions. But nobody knows what the LHC will find, and candidate theories are lined up around the block. It will take forever to check every theory one by one. And what's crucial is that there may be something going on that no theory predicts.

    “What we need is basic information,” Schuster said. “Not hyper-refined, detailed information.”"

    This truly is the crux of the matter, so to speak. Advances in pure science are greatly hindered by the scientific method, which for the most part builds knowledge from a previous base, much like jurisprudence. Even the observation of phenomena is restricted to measuring what one thinks important, and can measure. The science these people are doing, however, has the opportunity to make huge advances precisely because it depends less on previous knowledge. I almost regret not taking that course in quantum physics after all.

    • 'advances in pure science are greatly hindered by the scientific method' That's completely incorrect. Please research and fully understand the scientific method before you criticize it.

      • No, it is not incorrect, it is fundamental truth. I have done my research. Just saying I'm wrong doesn't cut it. If you have an argument to make, make it.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed that article in a way that I haven't had the pleasure of doing in a long time. That was Fantastic, Paul! More please! :)

  4. True story: I had a couple of those painfully simpleminded analogies in the piece, but our excellent editor Mark Stevenson took 'em out.

    • Thanks Mark for making the world a better place!

  5. Great article. Makes me happy to see that there are at least some efforts to recruit and keep the brightest minds here in Canada. I think your article does a really good job of underscoring why funding higher education is so important.

  6. I actually enjoyed that. Thanks PW.

  7. Thanks so much, Paul.

    I have no hope of seriously understanding it, but entangled particles excites me to no end! One of the other things Perimeter does is give lectures to the non-science community. They are always sold out the minute they're announced, but they have a nice library of videos from them.

    Also, I heard yesterday that the Alpha Constant may not be, constant that is, after all. And with the problems of gravity at the quantum level, what if it isn't constant, either? Can you imagine some day controlling gravity? Talk about an alternative energy source!!

    • See, this is why I'm glad physics isn't practiced by economists. "What if one day we could control gravity?" "No, the Newtonian model doesn't allow that." Whereas, with physicists, you get interesting articles on how this could work and how it couldn't. Also, you get entangled particles. And "charm".

      • Well seeing as Newton died in 1727, he's hardly the last word on the subject. LOL

        • Ricardo wrote in 1817 and he's still the go-to guy for the economics of international trade…

          • And you see the mess THAT has caused.

    • Yeah I was reading about that in sciencedaily just the other day.

      Kind of throws the Copernican principle for a bit of a loop if true, in that it considers the universe to be homogeneous, suggesting the laws of physics should be the same everywhere, but I could be wrong. It's easy to lose sight of the nuances in scientific terminology.

      "Laws of Physics Vary Throughout the Universe, New Study Suggests" http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/1009

  8. Thanks for the contribution. Other physicists (including from Perimeter, but really from anywhere) are encouraged to join the discussion of this piece — and comment-board regulars are urged to give them a neighbourly welcome if they do.

    • Its a great article, by the way. I hope I didn't sound to critical.

  9. Great article for sure Paul. Must've taken a lot of time and effort to put this together, and good on you for it.

    One niggling little question though. I'm just a little confused by your use of notation, ie 10¯17 cm.

    I assume that is meant to be ten to the negative seventeenth power, but it looks like 10 to the 17th power.

    In any case, wouldn't that usually written as 1X10^-17? (online that is?)

    In the age of information, why or why can't your average website show power units? LOL

    What I can't wait to see is the day when they can get close to measuring things at the Planck length. (~1.6×10^-35 meters)

    It's going to be tough to falsify M-theory without getting down to that level.

    And speaking of M-theory, I thought String Theory had been sidelined by its unification with the supergravity theory and then renamed M-theory?

    Are the M-theorists who work on the string portions of the theory really still calling themselves string theorists, or are they actively resisting the implied connection?

    • No, you're right, M theory is back big, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out how to explain that part.

  10. JoeC: "…I really don't understand why people see this as a religion vs. science issue…"

    Yeah, you and me both brother.

    Seems to me that, as you say, they're looking at different things really.

    Scientific practises are founded upon experimental verification of a universe considered as a scientific object.

    Theology views the universe in terms of the human experience of reality.

    Of course the religious literalists often get carried away, but wouldn't it be fair to say that what a lot of religious people are actually looking for is a cosmology that still retains a place for existential meaning or purpose?

    Current scientific cosmology is terribly complicated and not easily accessible to a lot of people, so the resistance to it is understandable to me, especially given the penchant of a lot of scientists to be utterly hostile to the notion of spiritualism.

    It takes two to tango!

    • Science is great at explaining, or at least theorizing, about physical functionality. It does a lousy job with meaning. Science minded people who understand that, in my experience, have no issues with what we might call spiritual practice (as opposed to religious teachings about the physical universe).

      However, when people try to masquerade science as a system of meaning, then they run into serious problems, not the least of which is a stunning hypocrisy: namely that they claim to base their knowledge on theories which are proven by evidence, but are perfectly content to claim absolute knowledge about matters, namely spirituality, which they know little to nothing about.

      Science and religion have no issues as long as each of them stick to what they're good at. Both of them fulfill deep seeded needs of our species – the need to get material stuff done (i.e. grow food, medicine, etc.), and for a meaningful life.

      • Scientists have never claimed absolute knowledge on anything, much less spirituality.

        Science is also not about getting 'material stuff done'

        The 'meaning' of your life is up to you.

        • Good scientists don't claim that they know everything. In my experience, overly zealous atheists do, much like their overly zealous theistic cousins. Claiming with certainty that something like a creator god doesn't exist, which is the kind of thing I've heard many times, is just as foolish as claiming with certainty that one exists, IMO.

          However, you seem to have claimed absolute knowledge on the subject of the existence of god(s), and shown that you look down on agnostics (who have a much stronger, and more brave, position than atheists). Maybe you're not a scientist, so you're not counting yourself. You are, however, the type of person to which I was referring.

          Re: getting material stuff done: That's an oversimplification on my part which was an attempt to point out that science deals largely with material functionality, whether that's in manipulating it, or trying to understand it. That's just my simplistic way of filing things, and I'm sure that a scientists could give a much more eloquent summary of their sphere of knowledge.

          My larger point was that there are spheres of knowledge, and that different methodologies and approaches will yield different types of information. If experts of one sphere, whether that be religion or science, claim they have all the answers, we should seriously question their judgements, as well as their motives.

          • No scientists… of any kind…. claim that they know everything.

            Nor do atheists.

            Everyone is an atheist you know….I just believe in one less god than you do.

            It's not my problem that you worry about lightning bolts. LOL

            People at the Perimeter Institute are not in the least concerned with 'material functionality'….nor are most others in science. Perhaps you are talking about technology…which produces things like iPads.

            Religion is a bunch of superstitious nonsense, not any 'sphere of knowledge'

          • "No scientists… of any kind…. claim that they know everything.

            Nor do atheists.

            Everyone is an atheist you know….I just believe in one less god than you do.

            It's not my problem that you worry about lightning bolts. LOL

            Religion is a bunch of superstitious nonsense, not any 'sphere of knowledge'"

            Do you forget what you said in the first half of a post by the time you write the second? Your ability to contradict yourself so perfectly and with such a marvellous lack of self awareness in one post is remarkable, though.

            And, for the record, I'm agnostic as the the existence of a creator god. As well, I'm pretty sure that most people worry about lightning bolts – they can cause a lot of damage!

            And re: 'material functionality': What I mean by that is that they are interested in how material things, i.e. matter and so forth, function. If that's not what they're interested in when they spend so much of their time studying what happens when small particles smash together, then I'm very confused about what it is that they're doing over there.

            "Everyone is an atheist you know….I just believe in one less god than you do. "

            First of all, that's just an inane statement which makes no sense whatsoever. Secondly, if you believe in one less deity than I do, you still believe in more than the average Canadian!

  11. Terrific article, Paul. I'm glad that something as amazing as the Perimeter Institute can flourish in Canada, and after reading your piece I'm more grateful than ever to Mike Lazaridis for making this happen.

  12. Very interesting and lots of good questions. I too, even though I'm not half as smart as you folks at the Perimeter Institute, also trying to understand the relationship between quantum physics, relativity and the real world in my blog. I do hope to see an answer to this wonderful adventure in my lifetime.

  13. “Nobody will accuse Perimeter of being flaky, soft, pretty much philosophy, etc. This is pretty much the opposite. And in my view, that's a good thing. I don't want this to be a philosophy centre. It's got to be a real hard-core place.”

    That attitude never ceases to amaze me, but I'm even more floored that it comes from a so-called 'out-of-the-box,' path-breaking scientist. Philosophers like Will Kymlicka are really blazing a trail in terms of evidence and empirical-based philosophy, on issues that matter to Canadians, like multicultural policies, language issues, etc. But to the physicists, it's "flaky."

    Alrighty then.

    • I doubt that's what he meant. More likely he didn't want a commune with gurus and 'spirituality'….but a place of hard science.

    • The concept of a philosopher blazing a trail to any thing is startling to say the least.
      First off ;the nature of the "blaze" ,The debate over this could stretch out for weeks, then the conundrum of "the trail as a dimensional construct". good for months and several grant applications.
      As for as Multicult and bilingualism mattering to Canadians. For most Canadians these issues matter only in as much as a nasty rash..A nasty flaky rash .

      • No one wants to have think about these issues, but whether they're popular or not, they occur, they matter and impact most everyone. Kymlicka's work also is easily applied to democratization and national security policy, so if you need something with a bit of Jack Bauer, then Will's still your guy.

  14. Oof! What a fascinating and challenging read. Thank you for that. This weekend I will start from the top again and try harder to grasp more of the concepts. What is not lost is the awe you have (and passed on very well) for scientists doing what they do best. The attack on ignorance continues.

    You know what's cool? I can't think of too many general interest newsmagazines that would have dispatched such a senior columnist to "dabble" out there past the territory usually claimed by the science mags. There is a certain tolerance for writers here to "go where your head and heart lead you," and the results are fantastic.


  15. I nominate this for a National Magazine Award (if I could). Well done.

  16. "Another, Freddy Cachazo from Venezuela, has found that complex numbers produce elegant solutions for predicting the way particles will scatter in a collider. That's just weird. A complex number has an imaginary component, such as the square root of a negative number. It's not at all clear why non-real numbers produce such nice predictions for real-world events."

    LOL this is hardly news. That complex numbers have been essential for quantum theory in general and scattering in particular has been known since Schrodinger wrote his equation in the mid-1920's. The real reason has been explained by Aharonov building from Wheeler-Feynman. We need complex numbers because what happens now depends both on what has happened and what will happen.

    • I give you an imaginary thumb, squared :)

    • Yes, but it remains true that "It's not at all clear why non-real numbers produce such nice predictions for real-world events."

  17. This is a very well written article. I enjoyed it a great deal. Thank-you.

  18. The teaching profession is a poor choice of comparison. Considering that after 10 years of experience, a 35 year old teacher (including benefits) in 2010 makes more per hour than most professions that require more education, physicists being only one among many. Market forces privilege the teaching profession financially more so than most. The opposite is true for researchers, for whom there is little demand compared to the potential supply, few barriers to entry, and for whom the labour market is a form of oligopsony.

    Engineers would have made a better comparison than teachers, having roughly similar educational requirements as teachers, at least initially, while having more affinity with physicists intellectually. The key difference is that the labour market for engineers, like physicists, is enormously more competitive than it is for teachers.

    And how does remuneration of engineers stack up against physicists? Higher for about the first 10 years, but less thereafter, with wide variation among the disciplines – something which is true for most holders of PhDs regardless of area of study. The point being, the contrast is not so stark.

    Besides, ask most non-teaching engineers and physicists if they would rather follow their intellectual interests or teach high school for a higher salary, and they would choose the former. As they should.

  19. excellente..seems hawkings is the nucleus of this group of scientists or possibly is collecting the brainees to father the next plato or the dalai lama but in the physics arena…heck we are all smart but just too darn lazy to get off our butts so we let others do it! right?

  20. Good article.

    One thing that came to mind… I wonder if the steady stream of youth that you find in a university setting, that are lacking in Perimeter, might end up being a limiting factor on their success.

    In a university you have a huge pool of youth, and these many people are filtered many times into a smaller number of individuals with the passion and the intelligence for the fields that they pursue. Eventually they find their way into the offices of the experienced researchers, through no particular plan. However, things don't work that way at Perimeter, instead they must search and recruit, and they don't have a steady influx of youthful ideas apart from the visiting scholars. In other words, they rely more on planning, and they will be gifted with fewer spontaneous surprises coming from unlikely places, which is something that is more likely to happen in a university setting, where exciting results come from unexpected people at unexpected times. Einstein himself was never recruited nor heralded, instead he made his own way into the academic world by persistence and brute force, and likely would never have been recruited by an institute like Perimeter. So I wonder if that will be a limiting factor. I guess time will tell.

    • Your comments are absolutely correct for our national lab system (most NRC Institutes etc). However at Perimeter, PDFs outnumber faculty by about 5 to 1. One of the pitfalls Perimeter will face is trying to hang on to the highly successful PDFs as their term expires. This would lead to the stagnation you were concerned about.

  21. It is for mathematicians * to review and expose Perimeter, Turok, Hawking et al. Read Hawking's list of publications, and (#32, I believe ) "An illustrated theory of everything". In Ottawa Centre, I work, record and publish * blood-stained mathematicians with neither obituary nor inquest. Paul Wells is a gullible layman, but physicists should take an interest in Canadian realities.
    Arnold Guetta mathematician * aguetta@rogers.com

  22. "The LHC started operating in 2008 but soon ran into significant technical problems."
    Is this happy-talk for, "It didn't work"?

    Every time a science reporter starts lacing his/her reports with "huge" and "significant" and "genius" in relation to science/scientists…be suspicious.