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.