Perimeter’s Heart

World-renowned physicist and social innovator Neil Turok brings his mission to Waterloo
Neil TurokPhotography by Jeremy R. Jansen

An hour before the lecture, the overflow room in the basement of Waterloo Collegiate Institute was already filling up. I double-checked with the volunteer at the door, to make sure I understood what I was seeing. Every month during the school year, eager science fans snap up free tickets to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics’ public lecture as soon as they appear online, she told me. The fifty or so people in the cafeteria had missed out in the virtual stampede, but they were here anyway, hoping some of the lucky ticket holders wouldn’t show up, and otherwise resigned to watching University of Oxford physicist Sir Roger Penrose on a screen in the basement. Penrose was a big draw, the woman said, but the run on tickets, the electric atmosphere, and the long line snaking down the hall outside the men’s washroom were regular features of physics night in Waterloo.

The auditorium itself looked more like Barack Obama’s Greek temple at last year’s Democratic convention than a high school stage, with elegant coloured lighting, spiral galaxies projected on the walls, and multiple backdrops featuring the twin Doric pillars of the Perimeter Institute logo. Shortly after 7 p.m., a tall man with dark, curly hair rose to introduce Penrose, leaving his windbreaker and backpack on the ground beside his front-row seat. Surveying the crowd of 600, he smiled. “This is actually my first day at work,” he began.

Neil Turok had recently left the ivy and cobblestones of the University of Cambridge, where he headed the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology and collaborated closely with Stephen Hawking, to take over as the executive director of Perimeter, the upstart institute anchored by $150 million of BlackBerry creator Mike Lazaridis’s personal fortune. News of Turok’s defection had been greeted with consternation in British newspapers, and with raised eyebrows by some elite physicists. If Turok himself had entertained doubts, some of them had been allayed by the enthusiastic turnout for his own lecture in the same series seven months earlier, in March 2008. (He had unofficially accepted the new job a few weeks prior to that, though it wouldn’t be announced publicly until May.) “I must tell you that from the outside world, when we heard that this very surprising, innovative institute for theoretical physics was being placed in Waterloo, we did wonder,” he’d told the audience. “Why put it in the middle of nowhere? But I guess you’re the answer to that question.”

The Penrose lecture took place on October 1, and since then the scope of Turok’s ambitions has become apparent. In late November, he captured the attention of Canadians with the announcement that Hawking, probably the most recognizable scientist in the world, will spend several weeks each year in Waterloo, starting this summer. That’s relatively minor news for physicists, though, compared with the series of initiatives that will see Perimeter — already one of the largest assemblies of theoretical physicists on the planet — grow dramatically over the next few years. The number of faculty is slated to grow from ten to twenty-five, and the number of post-doctoral researchers from forty-four to sixty; thirty-nine other renowned scientists will join Hawking in making Perimeter their second research home; and promising young hotshots from around the world will flock to a new graduate course starting this fall. Turok’s vision, backed by Lazaridis’s millions, offers theoretical physicists a crucial shot of confidence at a time when critics both inside and outside the field are accusing physics of losing its way, with ever more abstruse theories drifting further and further from observed reality.

For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, physics bounced from one major success to another. Elegant experiments tested and confirmed even wildly counterintuitive theories like quantum mechanics, and new theories in turn explained the puzzling results of experiments and observations. But since the 1970s, this symbiosis between fundamental theory and experiment has eroded, as theories have raced ahead of our ability to test them. The new Large Hadron Collider near Geneva should finally allow scientists to prove (or rule out) the existence of the elusive Higgs boson, first predicted in the 1960s, the only particle posited by the standard model of particle physics that has yet to be observed. But the answers to other key questions remain out of reach.

In 1996, science journalist John Horgan wrote a book called The End of Science, in which he argued that physicists had made all the major breakthroughs they would ever make. What was left was either detail work or else beyond our comprehension. Moreover, he said, the theories physicists were then pursuing about the origin of the universe and the nature of time and space had become impossible to test — and a theory untested by experiment is philosophy, not science.

Since the mid-1980s, theoretical physics has been dominated by string theory, which posits that all particles and forces in the universe are manifestations of the vibrations of infinitesimally small pieces of string. The theory (or theories — there are numerous variations) produces beautiful mathematics and accounts for a range of observed phenomena. But it also imposes some awkward constraints. If it’s true, then we live in a universe with ten or eleven dimensions, some of them too small to detect. Horgan argued that it would take a particle accelerator more than 300,000 times bigger than our solar system to directly test for the strings’ existence.

The End of Science spoke to a debate about not only what physicists were studying, but how they were studying it. Critics were at the time asserting that calcified academic hierarchies made it difficult for physicists to undertake risky or unorthodox research — a particular problem given that breakthroughs typically come from young researchers following their own interests. It was in this context, in the late 1990s, that Research in Motion founder and co-ceo Mike Lazaridis began to explore the idea of setting up a centre to probe fundamental questions about the universe.

The Perimeter Institute set out in 2001 with a core staff of nine scientists organized in a flat hierarchy, and with a commitment to balancing mainstream and non-mainstream approaches to uncovering the essential nature of space, time, matter, and information. “The idea was that when there are competing approaches to a problem, you don’t choose, you just get the best people on both sides,” says Lee Smolin, one of the initial faculty hires. Research was “non-directed,” and the institute encouraged its young post-docs to pursue their own ideas rather than simply assist senior researchers. Some aspects of Perimeter’s structure have changed since it opened — it introduced the traditional university concept of tenure, for example, in 2007 — but the basic elements remain unchanged.

Perimeter’s first executive director was Howard Burton, whom Lazaridis hired straight out of the Ph.D. program of Waterloo’s physics department in 1999. Turok’s hiring marks the institute’s first regime change, and observers are watching closely to see what he will do. “It’s hard to imagine that he won’t succeed,” says David Gross, the winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics and a mentor to Turok since their time as colleagues at Princeton. “The only question is, in what direction?” Gross’s point is fair: Turok’s fame rests on two very different foundations. He is the co-champion, along with Princeton physicist Paul J. Steinhardt, of a “cyclic universe” theory that challenges the conventional understanding of cosmic history. And he’s the founder of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, a bold mix of international development, capacity building, and high-level education based in a suburb of Cape Town. “I think the success of aims really turned him on to science leadership,” Gross says.
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