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Big brains

Perimeter Institute lures star theoretical physicist from MIT to Waterloo Add to ...

The Perimeter Institute has scored a coup in luring world-renowned theoretical physicist Xiao-Gang Wen away from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Professor Wen was announced Friday as the inaugural BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics, now the world’s best-endowed chair in the field at $8-million, and intended to be the first of five named after the discipline’s founding fathers.

At 49, the Chinese-born Prof. Wen is a star of condensed matter theory, having played key roles in several groundbreaking shifts in the way scientists understand matter and materials.

Prof. Wen found the Perimeter Institute immediately alluring when he first visited in 2004. The institute’s focus on fostering interaction between researchers threw him into new intellectual territory, a space for merging ideas with common threads as well as radical differences.

“Suddenly, you’re seeing things in a different dimension. It’s kind of a mind-opening experience for me,” Prof. Wen said.

He is already a familiar figure at Perimeter, having held a distinguished visiting chair for the past three years, but will now arrive full-time to build a new research team.

A $4-million donation from BMO and matching funds from Perimeter’s endowment established the Newton Chair last fall – the bank’s largest ever donation to science, and the biggest private gift to Perimeter. Traditionally, fundamental physics has struggled to compete with more practical sciences for high-level support.

“If it has a name, it’s not new,” Prof. Wen said. “How do you [convince someone to]support something that doesn’t even have a name?”

But discoveries in theoretical physics have driven huge practical innovations in fields like computing and electronics, making Prof. Wen a smart investment for “the future of commerce” in Canada, according to BMO president and CEO Bill Downe.

“What I do actually is material, it’s just new kinds of materials,” Prof. Wen said. “I’m expanding the toolbox.”

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