Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

FOCUS

Seeding cash to grow genius: Does it work? Add to ...

Similar criticisms have been levelled at Perimeter, but Dr. Turok will have none of it. “There's almost no way of knowing what will come out of this, but something will come out, because these people are not coming here to relax.”

You can't be both creative and predictable

The sheer power of pushing smart people together and waiting for something to happen is the essence of a research institute. And yet it offends the control-freak side of most funding agencies. “Governments want predictability when they give out money,” says Margaret MacMillan, the Warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford. “But that's not creativity. Look at Silicon Valley: They build offices where people can play, bump into each other, have meals together. They've obviously realized that this works.”

The communal nature of Perimeter's social structure follows that lead: Smart people talk and make intellectual connections when they bump up against each other. This old-is-new approach to basic theorizing has also caught the attention of University of Toronto's John Polanyi.

“Governments resist the idea that scientists should be free to make discoveries where nature at any given time allows, not where governments in their wisdom prefer,” he notes. “Lazaridis understands this full well. Since he makes money, he may be listened to. My expectation, however, is that he won't be, so deeply entrenched in the idea that basic science should be steered in the direction of perceived application.”

Dr. Turok is familiar with this widespread understanding of usefulness. He used to teach at Cambridge University, among the courts and libraries where Isaac Newton studied both gravity and alchemy, but left when research yielded to commercial pressures.

He gladly traded Cambridge's historic beauty for Waterloo's work-in-progress sensibility. “Governments around the world in the last 10 years have chosen to focus on short-term, economically productive science and technology, to the exclusion of creativity. In Cambridge, with an amazing tradition of discovery, the physics department was busy producing [flat] screens and doing food science to enable better hamburgers to be produced. The consequence is that the best students don't want to go there, because the work isn't fundamental, it isn't exciting.”

Research of that kind can be justified easily to taxpayers suspicious of ivory-tower time-wasters. Often, they don't even have to pick up the tab, once corporations start paying for academic expertise. But the limitations should be equally obvious.

“You have to allow for the unusual and unexpected all along the cycle of discovery,” says Michael Hayden, a University of British Columbia genetics researcher. “You have to give people room to play so that they can come up with something innovative, as opposed to directing the process too early and too often.”

Perimeter, buoyed by Mr. Lazaridis's largesse, can afford to focus on the playful and exciting stuff that attracts the brightest minds. And that's become a key selling point in the case for theory's investment potential.

Changing the course of history isn't a get-rich-quick scheme

The problem with evaluating intellectual speculation is that we can do so only after the fact – often centuries after.

We know that the discoveries of Newton and Einstein have resulted in immense economic spin-offs. But that doesn't mean that we can replicate their conditions and then confidently play the waiting game. There are too many variables, too many uncertainties, too much failure (which is a natural consequence of theorizing's unpredictable ways).

Even if you achieve the next generation of Einsteinian brilliance, will it be recognized for what it is? Will its commercial applications readily appear on cue, and will they benefit those who underwrote the theorizing?

Discovery exists in a world of happy and unhappy accidents, as physicists know better than most, and the success stories are the most unpredictable of all.

Ancient Greek thought somehow pointed the way to American prosperity, but building a school modelled on Plato's Academy probably won't make you rich any time soon.

And so Perimeter is being sold as a place that will enrich the wider Canadian community – brilliant people moving among us, elevating our minds and making us more innovative and competitive, turning theoretical physics into business buzzwords.

Many of them who come as students will stay to teach our children or take jobs where their understanding of high-tech investment and their independent casts of mind are highly valued.

How could a bank or a government supporter not be lured in by such arguments? That's how they suddenly they find themselves supporting research chairs in theoretical physics.

Could poetry be next?

John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version had incorrect figures about the amount of money Mike Lazaridis has donated to the Perimeter Institute. This online version has been corrected.

Single page
 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular