By Kate Lunau - Wednesday, December 26, 2012 - 0 Comments
Science’s big bet paid off when the ‘God particle’ was discovered courtesy of the monstrous Hadron Collider
For nearly five decades, scientists have been searching for a missing piece of the universe—one that’s infinitesimally small, incredibly elusive, yet explains why everything as we know it exists. On July 4, an announcement came from Geneva, where the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is based: a team of thousands, working on a massive underground particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider, had confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson. The “God particle” had been found.
Named for theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, who dreamed it up in 1964, the Higgs boson particle has long been the missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics, which describes the universe’s basic building blocks. It was Higgs’s answer to a question that had scientists stumped: where does mass come from? Mass gives shape to the universe, holding protons and neutrons together to make atoms, and then molecules, and then all of us. Higgs suggested particles obtain mass by passing through an invisible force field that stretches through the universe. “The [Higgs field] fills all of space,” says Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. “It’s the medium in which we live,” and the Higgs boson particle is evidence of that field. Continue…
By macleans.ca - Monday, October 8, 2012 at 7:10 AM - 0 Comments
Why are we here? One of the world’s greatest physicists on the search for answers
“We live in a worried world that seems short of good ideas,” Neil Turok writes in The Universe Within, this year’s CBC Massey Lectures. But his cross-country lecture tour and the accompanying book are dedicated to the proposition that “a good idea can change the world.” He shows how that already happened in ancient Athens, in 18th-century Scotland, in Vienna a century ago and in his native South Africa, where his parents helped defeat the apartheid regime. And Turok, the director of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ont., shows how physics breakthroughs right here in Canada may soon change the world once again.
One does not need to look far to ﬁnd examples where science’s success has encouraged a certain overreach and disconnect. There is a tendency to exaggerate the significance of scientific discoveries, and to dismiss nonscientific ideas as irrelevant.
Many scientists, for example, express the viewpoint that the universe seems pointless at a deep level, and that our situation is somehow tragic. For myself, I find this position hard to understand. Merely to be alive, to experience and to appreciate the wonder of the universe and to be able to share it with others is a miracle. I can only think that it is the separation of scientists from society, caused by the focus and intensity of their research, that leads them to be so dismissive of other aspects of human existence. Of course, taking the view that the universe seems pointless is also a convenient way for scientists to eliminate any prior prejudices or ulterior motives from their research. They want to figure out how things work without being biased by any thoughts of why they might work that way. It is reasonable to postpone questions of purpose when we have no scientific means of answering them. But to deny such influences is not to deal with them. Scientists are often consciously or unconsciously driven by agendas well outside science, even if they do not acknowledge them.
By Paul Wells - Monday, November 29, 2010 at 9:00 AM - 14 Comments
“One rarely has to wait long at Perimeter before somebody comes along with a gift of money,” I wrote in September in my account of a month at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo. Today will be another such day. But not nearly routine, even by the standards of such days.
This afternoon the usual suspect when it comes to funding for Perimeter, its founder and chairman Mike Lazaridis, will be joined at the big black building in Waterloo by a newcomer: Bill Downe, the CEO of BMO Financial Group. Downe’s bringing the cheque: $4 million to establish — deep breath — the “BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute.”
The Institute’s endowment fund, kept full by Lazaridis, will match the bank’s donation to make $8 million. BMO’s $4 million is the largest single donation it has ever made to a science project. It is the largest corporate gift Perimeter has received in its decade of existence. And it marks a new moment for the science park, because it marks the first time it attracts serious private money from a source that didn’t get rich selling BlackBerrys. As we’ll see this is only the beginning of that trend. But it’s what Perimeter will do with the money that’s really intriguing.
The BMO Newton chair is the first of five endowed chairs Perimeter’s director, Neil Turok, wants to establish. (The others will be named after other historic discoverers, Maxwell, Bohr, Einstein and Dirac.) The stated goal is “to attract five of the most influential theoretical physicists of our time.” Continue…
By Paul Wells - Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 10:33 PM - 0 Comments
The other $20 million the Prime Minister announced today at Perimeter Institute may be the smartest and boldest investment a Canadian government has made in development assistance in decades.
It’s $20 million over four years to support Perimeter director Neil Turok’s African Institute for Mathematical Studies, which the cosmologist has branded as his NextEinstein initiative. Turok’s South African, and his idea is simple: there is no good reason why the next Einstein or Newton or Stephen Hawking shouldn’t be a young African man or woman. That continent is many things but of course one of them is a massive untapped human-capital resource: if you unleash some of those hundreds of millions of minds you help Africa and you help the world. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Sunday, February 28, 2010 at 1:03 AM - 50 Comments
Last autumn I interviewed Neil Turok, the South African physicist who runs the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo. Our talk began in expected places and ended somewhere unusual, with Turok making a pitch for “smart aid” to Africa: an approach based on keeping some of the continent’s best minds at home, and sending them reinforcements from around the world to make Africa, at last, a centre of creation and discovery instead of subsistence and strife. Sounds mad, doesn’t it. But Turok has credentials: his African Institute for Mathematical Sciences is well begun and, he hopes, will soon have branches across the continent. The whole interview is worth re-reading, but here’s the part that launches our discussion of some tremendously exciting ideas, coming from a Canadian with African roots, that I want to share with you today. Turok told me:
Indeed [in 2010] the G-8 will be meeting alongside the G-20. And Canada was instrumental in pushing for the G-20’s creation. So Canada can be influential, because of its own history and the way it is trusted around the world. Use that. Use the fact that Canada has an excellent public education system, excellent university system — use that as leverage for your aid to Africa, to try to help Africa put in place a similarly strong health-care, university, science, innovation system. Doing that, you’re building on your strengths. The rewards will be enormous.
Which brings us to David Strangway. It was Turok himself, during a stop in Ottawa a few weeks ago, who mentioned Strangway’s “Academic Chairs for Africa” program. It’s gathering support around the world, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been urged to put it on the agenda for discussion at the Muskoka G8 and Toronto G20 this June. But I don’t believe a large Canadian news organization has told you anything about it before now. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Friday, October 16, 2009 at 4:26 PM - 11 Comments
As I mentioned earlier, my column about Neil Turok and Perimeter Institute left out substantial chunks of our interview. So here are some of those, er, chunks.
Before he joined Perimeter last year, Turok was known (among physicists; I’d never heard of the guy) for two things:
• an extraordinary intelligence and an iconoclastic spirit which leads him to question some of the fundamental tenets of his field, including, in his cyclic universe model, the very idea of a Big Bang;
• his roots in South Africa, which led him to found and to devote much of his time to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. It’s based on a non-intuitive proposition: that on a continent where in many places there is cruelly limited access to food, running water or hospital beds, what’s needed is more theoretical physicists. And yet AIMS has been running for six years, is now operating on two campuses, and as the map on this page suggests, it has now graduated students from (by my count) 27 African countries. That’s barely the beginning of Turok’s ambitions for Perimeter’s distant African cousin.
I’ll pick up this segment of the interview where Turok is saying it’s pointless to try to direct research because the greatest discoveries have a way of appearing out of the blue. “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. And that was a great thing.”
Sensing a segué opportunity, I said: If a guy who wanted to start a physics institute in Waterloo would have been mad, what should I think about a guy who wants to start fifteen of them in Africa? Turok laughed hard at that one.
“He’s also nuts. He’s similarly nuts. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Friday, October 16, 2009 at 12:36 PM - 1 Comment
From the print edition, my column about Neil Turok and the latest from the Perimeter Institute. Turok and I talked about a wide variety of topics when I interviewed him in Toronto. What made it into the column was very nearly randomly selected. What got left out, including a discussion of his ambitious and fascinating work at the African Institute for Mathematical Science, will be up here on the blog soon, if I can find time during an entertaining weekend away from Ottawa.
By Paul Wells - Friday, October 16, 2009 at 9:00 AM - 21 Comments
Perimeter institute is a ‘no-nonsense place,’ says Turok
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. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Thursday, November 27, 2008 at 10:53 AM - 8 Comments
Dr. Neil Turok, Director of Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI), is pleased to announce the appointment of internationally regarded scientist Prof. Stephen Hawking to the position of PI Distinguished Research Chair.
Prof. Hawking will conduct regular stays at PI in coming years, beginning in the summer of ’09, and says, “I am honoured to accept the first Distinguished Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute. The Institute’s twin focus, on quantum theory and gravity, is very close to my heart and central to explaining the origin of the Universe. I look forward to building a growing partnership between PI and our Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, at Cambridge. Our research endeavour is global, and by combining forces I believe we will reap rich rewards.”
In announcing that Prof. Hawking will visit PI for extended periods each year, PI Director Neil Turok said, “The appointment marks a new phase in our recruitment that will see leading scientists from around the world establish a second ‘research home’ at Perimeter Institute. I am delighted that Stephen has agreed to accept the first of a projected 40 such visiting Chairs. We look forward to hosting Stephen in Waterloo, Ontario, to benefiting from his wise mentorship and guidance which has been so successful in Cambridge, and to the many stimulating scientific collaborations which will undoubtedly emerge.”
By Paul Wells - Wednesday, June 4, 2008 at 7:03 PM - 0 Comments
I am in a high-school auditorium in Waterloo, Ontario. Six hundred people are here for a lecture by Nobel laureate William Phillips. So is Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail and Mike Lazaridis, founder of Research in Motion. Lazaridis’ presence will turn out to be significant. Peggy Wente’s is merely a pleasant surprise.
By Paul Wells - Sunday, May 25, 2008 at 9:22 AM - 0 Comments
Neil Turok’s appointment as executive director of Perimeter Institute continues to be ignored in Canada and followed with interest elsewhere. But this piece is particularly interesting because it reveals the extent to which Turok was becoming very frustrated with science and research funding in Britain. It suggests that Stephen Hawking may soon be joining Turok at Perimeter for extended stays. And, lest Canadians get too cocky, it reminds us that too much of Canada’s research landscape still resembles the mess that Turok is leaving behind him in Britain… Continue…
By Paul Wells - Saturday, May 10, 2008 at 8:31 PM - 0 Comments
Incidentally, here’s why Neil Turok couldn’t be in Waterloo for the Perimeter Institute announcement on Friday. He is hosting a valued colleague at his other institute on the other side of the world. He is a busy fellow.
The idea behind Turok’s African Institute for Mathematical Sciences is similar (though there is no institutional link that I can find) to the idea for the African Institute of Science and Technology, which will open in Abuja this autumn and then expand into a network of science and engineering schools in several African countries: Continue…
By Paul Wells - Friday, May 9, 2008 at 10:31 AM - 0 Comments
Stephen Hawking, that is. The black hole guy has contributed a laudatory blurb to the news that Neil Turok, Chair of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, is the new Executive Director of Perimeter Institute in Waterloo.
“The combination of Neil and PI is brilliant and holds great promise for the future,” says Hawking in the news release that went out today after Mike Lazaridis announced Turok’s appointment in the rather extraordinary building Lazaridis built with Blackberry money. (Here’s my article about Perimeter and CIGI, the foreign-policy think tank Lazaridis’s business partner Jim Balsillie built next door.) Continue…