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.
Across the political system in Canada, there's agreement on this ... People who oppose this just need to be countered ...
I came from Britain. Comparatively, what I find in Canada is a breath of fresh air. Britain is cutting back in science; making itself more and more difficult for talented young science post-docs to come to, introducing all kinds of restrictions and regulation. They'll just cut themselves off from the pool of talent, and that'll be destructive to the future of science and technology in Britain.
What do you think of the tripling of tuition fees in Britain?
It's a disaster. The financial crisis was generated by Britain's over-emphasis on financial services. They made mistakes. And now who's paying for it? It's going to be the next generation, and they're putting them in debt ... Cambridge and Oxford are going to raise their fees to 9,000 pounds. Some people who may just go into debt. People who are responsible and know they cannot possibly pay will go to a cheaper university. So you're destroying access; instead of it being on the basis of academic merit, it's about money.
Would it have been possible to do the Perimeter Institute within a university?
No. I have a long experience of this. I was a professor at Princeton, at Cambridge, and I didn't know much about the outside world, to be honest. What taught me about the outside world was setting up an institute in Cape Town, [South Africa]... what I discovered is that by being outside universities, but partnering with them, you can go ten times faster. It's like a start-up company can go much faster than a Ford or an IBM. You can basically make new rules for today, whereas the universities by and large are operating according to rules which were designed maybe a hundred years ago in some cases. My experience - and Princeton and Cambridge are two of the best universities in the world - they are not dynamic institution
We set up this institute in Cape Town, the African Institute Mathematical Science. We had no money. We bought a derelict hotel. And again out of this sheer naiveté, just like Mike Lazaridis. We thought, let's think: how do we make a centre for post-graduate mathematical science which is really useful for Africa.
We said, ok, this is the physics curriculum. And we wrote it down. But we thought, these students are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, and then we want to make them into researchers. We can't afford to go the traditional route. That takes four, five years. you've got to leapfrog somehow. So what we realized is that, if you look at researchers today in science, and this is true of 95-99 per cent of them. What are they doing? They are all sitting at computers, making models, taking data sets over the Internet, fitting them to the model, trying to make a better model. If you look at astronomy, biology, physics, they're all doing the same thing. Yet those skills are never taught. Nobody teaches you how to do a model on a computer. Or how to solve unfamiliar problems through independent thinking. So we designed an entirely new curriculum which cuts across all the sciences. It starts with the skills common to all of them ...
So [the Perimeter Institute]is a new style of university, one with minimal bureaucracy ... By the way, there's no exam in this course at all. Everything is continuous assessment, there's a research project which you are assessed on. You have an oral exam, and you're judged on your written thesis for your research project. We deliberately de-emphasize exams and grades. do you go through your university to get 87, or to get a number? No, you don't. You should go there to become a creative young person who can do all kinds of things.
My criticism of universities is they have become rather insular and selfish organizations who essentially, when it comes to talent, they operate with a vacuum cleaner model. You look at Harvard or Cambridge, and they hoover up the talent and they give nothing back. But we know in science that much more efficient than just sweeping stuff up is to create positive feedback. So what you should do is to take up talent, and enable those people to go back and generate more talent. And then more young people will apply, and you'll get circulation, and that reinforces itself. That's the way this institute in Africa which I started operates, and it's become very very successful. It's trusted by other centres in Africa, because it deliberately encourages people to go back ... essentially supplying young lecturers and so on all across Africa
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.