Neil Turok, Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., visited The Globe and Mail editorial board. He spoke about the structure of university education, attracting and keeping good students, and theoretical physics:
On the Perimeter Institute and the challenges and opportunities in theoretical physics:
What attracted me to the Perimeter Institute is that it was a place from which enlightenment could spread … What's unique about it is that it's a public-private partnership, started by Mike Lazaridis, the inventor of the BlackBerry, and many other companies lend their support to it, but funded by the province [of Ontario]and the federal government.
And yet its focus is on the purest science you can imagine. the importance to generate breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe ... what are the basic laws governing matter and space time? And out of that understanding will come technologies and new ways of doing things which will change the future.
Two of our recent hires - young particle physicists - came from Stanford. They're right at the heart of the Large Hadron Collider in the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). They're theorists who engage with experimentalists, and recently organized a workshop on how to prepare the first data from the collider. That's the impact we're having in the greatest experiment of all time, a $10-billion experiment. With two junior faculty salaries, we are now right in the heart of that experiment
Theoretical physics is the lowest cost, highest impact science, and I say that without reservation. Where does engineering come from? Where was the DNA code cracked? All of the tools trace back to theoretical physics. Lasers, semiconductors, all of these things are a spin-off of theoretical physics. The World Wide Web is a direct spin-off of CERN. The special thing that Mike Lazaridis realized, through his naive insight, was that if you wanted to invest in a field, this is the one to invest in. It's cheap, it requires blackboards, people and an environment to keep them happy.
If you had to say, what's the most valuable thing humanity possesses, I would say it's the formula that defines 20th century physics. At the same time, it's free to share. You can explain this to somebody from Bangladesh or China or Madagascar, and everyone agrees that this is the correct formula. You can make predictions based on this formula to 14 decimal places, and it's correct. There's no other field that competes with this field for the precision, power and range of this formula. It governs the universe from the tiniest sub-atomic particle to the structure of the universe itself.
We know this formula is wrong, even though it's as precise as it is. When calculate the coupling between gravity and all the other forces, you start to discover infinities ... The goal is to find the replacement.
Perimeter's twin focus is ... quantum theory and space-time ... the most challenging problem in physics is to reconcile these two theories ... The links between these two areas have grown stronger and stronger
We encourage a clash between different disciplines, because it's through that confrontation that you learn the best approach. At the same time, an emerging set of common tools developed ... one area is quantum field theory ... It's the basis for quantum gravity, and it's emerged as the key to string theory.
Quantum computing and quantum communication have become important fields at the Perimeter Institute ... We're moving towards a quantum computer, where you'll be able to have a computer that doesn't operate in terms of bits, 0s and 1s, but in terms of entangled quantum states for spinning particles on the surface layers [of materials] It'll make our existing computers look like abacuses
What do you see as the benefits of creating scholarships for foreign students?
Canada has an amazing opportunity which it should recognize. Because the rest of the world is in relative difficulty financially, Canada's come through in relatively good shape. Now is the time to attract global talent. Canada's a very welcoming country, it has a good health care system, school system; it's a safe place to live. If Canada takes advantage of this, that will bring dynamism to the economy, to society, and that will generate wealth and progress. To turn inward right now would be a big mistake ... We're seeing the best young people in the world, enjoy coming here. This is a brilliant move of Ontario to create international fellows. It echoes what Stephen Harper announced in July, the Banting Fellowships.