Perimeter Institute: the bistro at the edge of the universe

When I met Neil Turok to discuss the 15-year-old Jacob Barnett and other developments in modern physics, the director of Perimeter Institute was wearing shorts and a floral shirt. The South African cosmologist had been on vacation — still was, technically. But he plainly missed his Canadian home base. I had asked to meet him in Perimeter’s sunny white-furnished ground-floor bistro. But everyone else was there, so it took us a moment to shake ourselves free. Turok paused to say hello to Raymond Laflamme, who runs Perimeter’s cross-town partner the Institute for Quantum Computing, and John Berlinsky, who runs the Perimeter Scholars International program in which Jacob Barnett is the youngest student.

When we sat down, Turok waved to someone I didn’t know. “There’s Senthil Todadri!” He said. “I tell you, you never know who you’ll see.” I nodded politely and Googled later, a method I came to adopt long ago when visiting Perimeter. Todadri, I discover, is a specialist in condensed-matter physics, a field which seeks better explanations for a few classes of material that have particular properties. Silicon, to use a 70-year-old example, reacts usefully to light and electrical current. There’s a global race to find materials that have, or can be made to have, properties that would make them useful for incredibly powerful quantum computers. (Here’s the page on the topic from Dartmouth, chosen at random.) At a young age, Todadri is one of the world leaders in the field.

What was he doing at Perimeter? Hanging out in the bistro, mostly. More properly, he is one of 35 Distinguished Visiting Research Chairs, world-leading physicists who are, simply, welcome to visit Perimeter whenever they like. Stephen Hawking was the first; after that, physicists who receive the invitation usually say yes. They’re paid a stipend, given lodging, driven to and from Pearson Airport. While in Waterloo they can duck out of administrative responsibilities back home, catch up on the latest theories at conferences they attend or organize, and generally refresh their batteries. “It’s the cheapest thing we do,” Turok said. “The benefits are enormous.”

Theoretical physics, like any intellectual endeavour, depends on constant exchange of ideas. There are lecture halls and conference rooms aplenty here, but the bistro is part of the strategy. Built in 2010-11 when Perimeter’s original iconic design needed an expansion that doubled its floor space, the bistro replaces the (locally) legendary Black Hole Bistro, which was upstairs, decorated in dark shades and, while it was used all day long, seemed designed for late nights. This one is the first thing you see when you enter the building. It is the main meeting place for everyone here. “Neil said that on a really good day, you should never get past the bistro,” John Matlock, Perimeter’s public affairs director, told me. “You’d come in expecting to do something else, and get caught up in the discussions here.”

The bistro serves a menu of mostly-healthy food, although they also cook a mean hamburger. Everyone pays for their food, most on monthly accounts. You can watch relationships forming. On my first day there Jacob Barnett was sitting with his mom but kept looking over at a long table where Daniel Gottesman was holding court. Gottesman is a faculty member in quantum information, a field that intrigues Jacob. Finally Jacob picked his chair up, carried it across the bistro and plunked himself down next to Gottesman.

The bistro’s complement is the Sky Room on the new addition’s top floor. It’s the only room where meetings are not videotaped and archived for Perimeter’s searchable conference video database. The Sky Room, with its loungey chairs and bright colours, is intended to be the room where physicists exchange their craziest ideas, the ones they wouldn’t want to be seen discussing because they might sound a little daft.

This geometry bespeaks an attitude: that the best scientists do their best work when they get out of their ruts. Evidence in favour of this attitude comes from a study last year for the British Institute of Physics. The study measures “citation impact” — the number of times physics papers are cited in other papers. It’s a handy measure of scientific influence. A widely cited paper is one that influenced many colleagues’ work. The paper shows that from 2009 to 2010, Canadian physicists passed those in German, the UK and the United States to take first place in the global citation league table. (Figure 3.2a here.) When he saw the report, Turok called its authors and asked them to run the numbers without papers from Perimeter Institute. Without Perimeter, Canada fell to fourth place.

“The thing is, when I came here, I told everybody to write fewer papers,” Turok said. “I said, ‘I don’t want you publishing just to publish. I want breakthroughs. When you’re writing the next incremental paper, you’re not making breakthroughs. Write when you have something to say.” That attitude has led to Perimeter playing a key role in making theoretical physics one of the scientific fields where Canada leads the world.


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