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(Deborah Baic)
(Deborah Baic)

At The Editorial Board

On the record: Neil Turok Add to ...

You mustn't be too instrumental about this. Bright young people need opportunities to develop their minds; where they go will be determined by them. The more you become known as a place which really believes in that, and encourages international exchange - you're not just stealing talent and keeping the best for yourself - the more successful the institution. The most critical factor is the quality of the student recruits. If you've got the best students in the world to come to this program, it almost wouldn't matter who the lecturers were, because the students would go there just to interact with each other and stimulate each other. So that's our single most important focus: How do we ensure the most able, brilliant, creative students come here. And I believe we've got to be very proactive. We can't just sit and wait. We don't have a name like Cambridge or Princeton. So we are planning a summer school in Brazil, which will attract the top young physics graduates in Latin America.

Everyone knows huge amounts of money is being spent on aid to Africa. $30-billion a year. The cost of a centre for mathematical science, 50 students a year, is about a $1-million a year. So this is really cheap - sharing advanced knowledge is incredibly cheap. And yet it's probably the highest impact thing you can do, in the sense that you have people in different countries who understand each other, who are interested in the same thing ... this is objective stuff, it overcomes cultural barriers. Science diplomacy is really cheap and very cost effective. One of the arguments I'm making to the federal and provincial government is that Canada should be the principle proponent of science diplomacy in the world.

What drives or inspires the most students in physics?

If you want to attract the best students in the world, you do not say "I'm going to create the best fibre optic or the most efficient battery." What you do is you say "We're after a fundamental understanding of the laws of nature." The students get excited about quantum theory, gravity, unification of forces. In my case, my research field is the Big Bang singularity, and understanding what really happened ... that's the stimulus that makes them do all the hard work to understand the machinery of physics. And once they've understood it, 99 per cent of them do go off and do applied things. But if you set your goals lower, and narrow, you don't inspire people. And it's never the case that by being overly ambitious scientifically, you lose. you need to intellectually rigorous, and super-ambitious, you attract lots of brilliant young people. Once you've got this body of young people, all kinds of ideas come out of it that you can't predict beforehand. That cycle is nothing new; it's always been there.

And not to tell people in advance, "You should work on this." You don't get good science that way. My job as director of the centre is always to tell young people: "Are you being ambitious enough?" Another aspect of academia is that all kinds of measures have developed for academic success like citations. What is a citation? We're not doing science for citations. People cite their friends, who cite their other friends, who cite their original friends ... Who cares? The important thing is, did you actually make an advance in your understanding of real things? So we have all these misleading measures of success in academia ... so one thing Perimeter can do is provide a space to give them the freedom to explore what they want, but at the same time challenges them to be ambitious.

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