Decoding the universe

Waterloo is one smart city. The Perimeter is making it smarter

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.

I asked one faculty member, a curly-haired Brit named Lucien Hardy, how he would explain his current research to a colleague. “I’d say I’m working on a sort of quantum foundations-inspired approach to quantum gravity,” he replied. “And building a framework for probabilistic theories that can accommodate indefinite causal structure.” And what are the tools for this . . . whatever it is? “Chalk, pen, papers,” Hardy said. “I use computers to write papers and send emails. That’s it.”

But a cover story last year in Britain’s New Scientist magazine speculated about the possible end result of Hardy’s investigations: the revolution after the next great computing revelation, “quantum gravity computers” so advanced they would not deal with space and time in ways most of us could even recognize. Computers that would blur the rules of cause and effect. “If, as Hardy suggests, a quantum gravity computer might be able to see its result without having to run its algorithms, it is essentially no different to having a quantum computer strapped to a time machine,” the New Scientist article said.

But that magic box is decades off and, in a real sense, none of Hardy’s concern. He is simply trying to figure out the rules.

This is what fascinates Lazaridis and has driven him to become the modern world’s closest equivalent to the Medici family, the research patrons of medieval Florence. As an undergrad engineering student at Waterloo, Lazaridis grasped, and fell in love with, a lesson that is ignored by generations of students: in science, abstract knowledge never stays abstract for long.

“Basic research is a long-term investment that has always, always contributed to our success, well-being and financial security,” Lazaridis said. “I mean, you look at every single major unification in theoretical physics. (A “unification” is a discovery of intimate relationships between branches of physics where none had been seen before.) Everything from electromagnetism and electricity, to energy-matter-time, to wave-particle duality. Whether you’re talking about wave equations that changed communications, gave us wireless communication; to induction, power generation and transmission lines. All this stuff was the technology that came out of these fundamental understandings of the physical world around us.

“Look at things like wave-particle duality” — the notion, controversial in the 1890s, that everything sometimes acts like a wave and sometimes like a particle. “Just the study of something as esoteric as that! People thought it was crazy back then! You remember, Einstein to his dying day didn’t believe in it, in quantum mechanics. But that fundamental understanding gave us semi-conductors. Integrated circuits. The laser. They are the foundation of the Internet and our information society.”

Perimeter’s job is not to fiddle at the edges of those 20th-century advances, but to keep asking the same big questions: where did the universe come from? What is matter made of? Do answers to the second question provide keys to answering the first? (The short answer: they sure do.) How can Einstein’s theory of relativity be unified with quantum theory?

In 1999 Howard Burton, a bearded, intense Waterloo physics Ph.D., was hoping to escape life as a highly paid market analyst on Wall Street, where awesome math skills come in handy. He sent Lazaridis his resume and wound up getting hired as Perimeter’s first executive director. Burton resigned from that post in 2007, days after the Harper government announced stable five-year funding for Perimeter’s research program (other costs are paid out of the interest on Lazaridis’s endowment). Nobody involved will discuss the reasons for Burton’s departure, but all speak highly of his success in building a leading research institute from scratch. “The reputation of PI has grown from being a place that people had barely heard of, six years ago, to being a place that everyone in theoretical physics, certainly, is very aware of,” Hardy said.

The question after Burton left was who could take Perimeter to dominance the way Burton had built it from zero. A search committee with members of Perimeter’s faculty, its board and its blue-chip Scientific Advisory Committee looked around the world. Eventually they settled on Neil Turok, the chair of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, home to Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking. Turok had not applied for the job. He needed to be wooed. The Perimeter committee, led of course by Lazaridis, wooed hard. Turok starts work as Perimeter’s second executive director in September.

Turok brings two extraordinary advantages. His own theories stand to revolutionize the study of the universe’s origins. And his most cherished pet project, the Perimeter-like African Institute for Mathematical Studies, will become part of a global network of research centres. The hub of that network, he hopes, will be Perimeter.

For 40 years the most widely accepted theory of cosmology has been the so-called inflationary, or “Big Bang” model. In this model the universe was born more or less from nothing 14 billion years ago in an unbelievably violent explosion. Astronomers believe they see evidence of that cataclysm at the dawn of time when they see galaxies continuing to drift apart. The inflationary model is widely taught as fact.

But a decade ago Turok and Princeton’s Paul J. Steinhardt became so annoyed by discrepancies in the Big Bang theory they started casting about for alternatives. In their book, Endless Universe, Turok and Steinhardt lay out their critique of the inflationary model and their elegant, strange alternative.

The biggest problem with the inflationary model is that no force anyone has seen could grow the universe from nothing to, well, a universe, in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang. Theorists had to imagine a new force, “inflationary energy,” to explain the stunning expansion at the dawn of time. Inflationary energy would be untold trillions of times more powerful than gravity, but it would last only a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. Having unfolded the universe like God’s own camping tent, inflationary energy would then obligingly vanish.

Turok and Steinhardt didn’t like any of it. Turok writes with disdain that inflationary energy appears “put in by hand,” to paper over a theory’s flaws rather than improving it. They revived an ancient theory, the “cyclical model,” in which the universe expands and contracts like a squeezebox. But what would set each cycle going? They settled on the idea that our entire universe, all of creation, might be a three-dimensional “brane,” short for membrane, that coexists with other universes along some other dimension. Two such branes could be close together and never know it. Except when, every few trillion years, they collide. The energy from that collision would drive the expansion that now looks like evidence of the Big Bang, but eventually the two branes would stop drifting apart, start drifting back together, collide and start it all again.

Weird? Deeply. But extra universes are not harder for some theorists to believe than a special force, unimaginably vicious, that appears just long enough to blow out the universe before vanishing. Turok’s and Steinhardt’s theories are being discussed seriously where they once met derision.

Turok has no interest in turning Perimeter into a test lab for his pet cosmic theory. “The last thing Perimeter should ever become is a centre for one particular school of thought,” he told me by teleconference from Cambridge. Indeed, Perimeter is a meeting ground for leaders in sometimes antagonistic schools of thought. One faculty member, Lee Smolin, wrote a book criticizing a powerful school of physics called string theory. Yet Perimeter is also home to prominent string theorists.

What Turok’s cyclical theory does show is the habits of a fearless mind. Turok questioned one of the central tenets of modern physics because he felt his calculations pointed to a better idea. He will be looking for young researchers with a similar disrespect for the conventional. Some will come from Africa.

In 2003 Turok opened the African Institute for Mathematical Studies (AIMS) outside Cape Town. It offers graduate education in physics and mathematics at the highest level, at perhaps one-fifth what it would cost to educate the same students in London or Boston. The goal is to radically enrich the continent’s human capital. Turok has said the next Einstein should come from Africa. African nations have invested heavily in a network of AIMS-like educational institutes and a formal African Einstein Initiative.

Physics researchers for a continent that often lacks food, sanitation and just government? Surely that’s a hard sell. “It is, and I think the people who do not get the reason for investment include the international development agencies who are pouring billions for aid into Africa,” Turok said.

“One trillion dollars has been spent over the last 40 years. And you ask, what is the long-term outcome of that one trillion dollars? You can’t see it. People have been pouring money into Africa with very little positive outcome. I would argue that the single most important thing they have missed is that they view Africa as a huge problem that needs to be reduced. I mean, that’s what poverty reduction is. Whereas the people who will fix Africa are the brilliant young minds — African people — who are able to do something about it.”

Some of the AIMS students — “highly motivated young people who basically will work their socks off” — will find their way, whether for short visits or eventually as faculty, to Perimeter. Perimeter staff, in turn, will teach at AIMS. Turok’s colleagues, including perhaps Stephen Hawking, will come to view Waterloo as a congenial place to visit when they need to crunch a problem for a few months. Perimeter has begun sending information-rich DVDs to high-school physics classes across Canada and, soon, abroad. Summer sessions for promising university students will help them appreciate the challenges of a life in science. This fall the Discovery Channel will begin broadcasting the Perimeter public lectures.

The goal is to bring unprecedented resources to bear. The outcome is uncertain. Isn’t $200 million a lot to bet? “You’re dead right,” Turok said. “This is a bet. There is not a guaranteed outcome. Maybe we’ll look back 20 years from now and say, ‘Well, Perimeter, it was a brave attempt, but it failed.’ And I would say that, in fact, that’s what makes it exciting. If it was guaranteed, it would be boring.”

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