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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