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Canada Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics appoints new director

Physicist Rob Myers, the new director of Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics poses at the institute in Waterloo on Feb. 27, 2019.

The Globe and Mail

Canada’s premier venue for grappling with the mysteries of the universe has a new captain at the helm.

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., named Robert Myers, a long-time faculty member, who grew up in rural Ontario and earned his PhD at Princeton University, as the institute’s new director. Dr. Myers will also hold the institute’s Isaac Newton research chair, supported by a $4-million donation from BMO Financial Group.

Dr. Myers, 60, is known for his contributions to string theory, a mathematical framework that places the universe within a larger, multi-dimensional space in an effort to reconcile gravity with quantum physics. One of his discoveries in the field is now referred to as the “Myers Effect.”

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As the institute’s new director, he replaces Neil Turok, a high-profile cosmologist who came to Perimeter in 2008 and raised its stature from audacious start-up to a world-renowned crossroads for theorists. Dr. Turok, who first indicated he would step down from the role more than a year ago, will continue to be based at Perimeter and pursue his research there.

Dr. Myers is the third director to lead Perimeter since it was established in 1999 by philanthropist and Research in Motion co-founder Mike Lazaridis.

Mr. Lazaridis, who announced the new appointment during a ceremony at the institute on Thursday, said that Dr. Myers is well positioned to guide the institute’s future, in part because of his deep roots in its history.

“Our next director understands Perimeter – understands it perhaps better anyone,” Mr. Lazaridis said.

Dr. Myers came to Perimeter from McGill University in 2000 as one of the first hires by founding director Howard Burton. Describing the recruitment effort, Dr. Myers recalled the mixture of curiosity and fear he felt during a high-speed drive from the airport as Dr. Burton thumbed his BlackBerry while at the wheel. It was the first time Dr. Myers had seen the device.

Following a breakfast meeting with Mr. Lazaridis, Dr. Myers said he found himself unexpectedly inspired by the vision behind Perimeter.

“I thought, wow, they want to do something different, something special and something Canadian,” Dr. Myers said. “That really resonated with me.”

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Two days later he contacted Dr. Burton and said, “I’m in.”

Since then, Dr. Myers has had plenty of occasions to think about what it takes to run the institute. After Dr. Burton’s departure in 2008, he was tasked with helping find a new director. When a well-known scientist asked him what the institute was looking for, Dr. Myers replied, “Someone who doesn’t have the good common sense to know what’s impossible.”

Dr. Myers has been acting as Perimeter’s interim director since Dr. Turok officially stepped down at the end of last year.

The hand-off comes as Perimeter, which receives federal support in addition to private donations, is seeking to consolidate its position as a leading centre for theoretical physics against the backdrop of a growing global competition for talent.

After Dr. Turok indicated he would be stepping down more than a year ago, the institute tried, at various times, to land an international candidate for the top job, as it did when it lured Dr. Turok from Cambridge University in Britain. But the institute’s location and independent style have not always made it an easy fit for senior scientists tied to universities or based at more established centres in the US and Europe.

Dr. Myers, a father of three who comes from Deep River, Ont., has had stints abroad but said he was attracted to Perimeter by the prospect of doing exciting science while remaining in Canada.

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Asked what he envisioned for Perimeter’s next chapter, Dr. Myers said that one of the most important features of the institute from its earliest days has been its ability to be both daring and relevant in the rapidly changing and rarefied world of theoretical physics.

As the institution grows and matures, he said, keeping Perimeter nimble is the priority.

“It’s not a place for business as usual,” he said.

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