When he has time, Mike Lazaridis wanders to the second floor of an old, converted post office in Waterloo, Ont., where the blackboards run wall-to-wall, to eavesdrop on the physicists chalking formulae.
Here, in the temporary headquarters of the Perimeter Institute he created, the father of the 21st-century thumb can hear the secrets of the universe unfolding.
He doesn't stay all that long, because, for one thing, the great brains in the room like to yell at each other, and with their sponsor present, one scientist explains, they tend to mind their manners. Mr. Lazaridis, brilliant though he may be, can follow only the cadence of their debate. "These guys are in a different dimension," he freely admits, his awe undisguised. "They humour me."
If we someday drive floating cars without wheels, or sprint to neighbouring solar systems, it may be because these physicists have learned to manipulate gravity, or reconciled the contradictions between Einstein's relativity and quantum theory, and linked the atom to the black hole.
They are chasing the "holy grail" of physics, as Mr. Lazaridis puts it, and that makes him their $100-million King Arthur, building them a Camelot of glass and blackboards and solitude. "The only thing we can predict is that it will be fantastic," he promises. "It will change everything we know."
The possibilities get him giddier, arguably, than even his beloved Blackberry, the high-tech wireless invention that has made the co-CEO of Research in Motion (RIM) uncommonly rich. The Perimeter Institute he has founded will eventually house the world's largest physics institute; work on the new building began last month, with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien holding the shovel.
Mr. Lazaridis says it may take a half-century to produce a major breakthrough. By then, he will be 91. He's prepared to be patient. In a culture where many wealthy men spend their money on athletes, this is what he has instead of a hockey club.
Not that the man Globe readers voted Canada's Nation Builder of the Year has a problem with professional sports, though he has been known to joke to friends, "If aliens wanted to stop civilization, they'd come down with big sticks and little balls." It's just that he doesn't consider hockey a worthy "national objective" -- not like, say, discovering anti-gravity.
The science geek in him takes immense glee in edging out Wayne Gretzky in the poll co-sponsored by The Globe and Mail and the Dominion Institute. "This is progress," he beams over the phone from Japan upon hearing the news.
Mike Lazaridis is Canada's biggest brain in a business suit. He gives millions of dollars away without writing his name across buildings. He takes his kids trick-or-treating between conference calls. His right-hand man has been his best friend since Grade 6, and he still calls his old shop teacher -- his first mentor -- every Christmas.
He was five years old when his Greek parents set off for Canada with three suitcases among them; he remembers flying his bird kite off the ocean liner that delivered them to Montreal. They settled in Windsor, Ont., where his father, Nick, who had been a clothes salesman in Turkey, joined the line at the Chrysler factory, and his mother, Dorothy, worked as a seamstress.
Mr. Lazaridis represents what we like to consider our national archetype, the new Canadian who succeeds on smarts, is concerned about the greater good, and still gets home to read Dr. Seuss to his kids. He has dinner with his parents every week. He says things like, "How much money can you use yourself anyway?" and "Why not be branded the wisest nation in the world?" He doesn't know his own (undoubtedly lofty) IQ, he says, because "that's not what Canadians do."
His company, though hardly immune to the technology-sector meltdown, is a rare creation -- a tech firm that invented something people can actually name. His brainchild, the result of a white paper he wrote in three hours on his basement computer in 1997, has changed the way users talk and work and move their thumbs. (His own, Mr. Lazaridis claims, are "fast and efficient.")
The Blackberry caught on first with stockbrokers, and found a cachet with stars like Pamela Anderson and Matt Damon. Mr. Chrétien claims he sent his first e-mail on one -- to Mr. Lazaridis. Its name (the result of an extensive branding session that dumped options like Blade, because the word takes you to an Internet porn site) is becoming as ubiquitous as Kleenex.