In October, 1927, a group of academics assembled outside the Solvay International Institute for Physics in Brussels for what has since been called the most intelligent picture ever taken.
Among those in attendance were Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Marie Curie, along with 26 other leading physicists, more than half of whom had already won or were on their way to winning Nobel Prizes. They were there to discuss quantum mechanics – then a revolutionary new theory of matter and light – and its troubling discordance with Einstein’s description of gravity, known as general relativity.
Almost 95 years later, the same puzzle is motivating another meeting of minds underway this week in Vancouver, where organizers hope to renew the push to unite quantum mechanics with general relativity and create an overarching mathematical framework that explains all known phenomena.
The result would amount to a theory of quantum gravity, sometimes called a “theory of everything,” which would extend into places where current physics breaks down, such as inside black holes, or the instant of the universe’s creation.
“Physics is completely based on these two theories and both of them have been incredibly successful ... except that they’re incompatible,” said Philip Stamp, a professor at the University of British Columbia and chair of this week’s conference. “If that’s not an important scientific problem, it’s hard to know what is.”
The Vancouver gathering – which is set to have its own group photo on Wednesday, in an echo of the Solvay conference – has also drawn its share of Nobel laureates. Among them are Kip Thorne, an expert on black holes, and James Peebles, the Canadian-born cosmologist who helped develop the Big Bang into a well-tested and widely accepted theory of the origin of the universe. Other luminaries, including Cambridge University theorist and mathematician Sir Roger Penrose and British Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, are joining remotely.
All four will be featured speakers during the meeting’s keynote day on Wednesday, which will be oriented toward a broad public audience.
For some participants the meeting is a first opportunity to venture out and discuss new developments in the field since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But for Dr. Stamp and others, the point is to draw attention to a longer term project to establish an institute that would make Vancouver a centre for quantum gravity research.
The idea has garnered support from an array of prominent business leaders who are backing the conference and its broader aims, including real estate developer Terry Hui and video game and software entrepreneur Paul Lee.
Both have prior ties to the world of physics. Mr. Hui earned his undergraduate degree in the subject at the University of California at Berkeley, and Mr. Lee is the board chair of D-Wave, the Vancouver-area quantum computer company.
They have been joined in their efforts by venture capitalist Moe Kermani, internet entrepreneur Markus Frind and mining financier Frank Giustra. All five are listed as founding members of Vancouver’s Quantum Gravity Society, together with Dr. Stamp, Dr. Penrose and other scientists.
“I’m quite excited thinking about it,” Mr. Hui said in an interview. Calling the search for quantum gravity a “childhood dream,” he described his choice to pursue a career in business as a far easier road than the one followed by contemporaries who stayed in physics and tried to answer humanity’s deepest questions about the nature of reality.
Unexpectedly, the group’s quest to forge a new future for physics began with a concern about preserving its past, Dr. Stamp said.
It was during a visit with colleagues in the U.K., before the pandemic, that he learned of Michael Wright, an independent archivist who had collected a vast set of recordings and other materials chronicling the key developments in theoretical physics since the 1960s, including early lectures by Stephen Hawking, Dr. Penrose and others.
The problem was how to preserve and digitize the archive to make it more widely available to scientists and historians of science. Dr. Stamp, who is director of UBC’s Pacific Institute for Theoretical Physics, thought he could help. Soon he was in touch with Mr. Lee. Between them, an idea germinated: the archive could be housed in Vancouver.
Since then, legal arrangements to take over the archive have been completed, and work on digitizing the collection is now ready to proceed. The total cost of the project is estimated to be about $4-million, Mr. Lee said, which will be provided by the Quantum Gravity Society’s cohort of philanthropists.
Dr. Stamp said it was Mr. Hui who urged him and other physicists to think bigger, and plan not just for the archive but for an institute dedicated to “the most important problem in science.”
This is not the first time a science-minded philanthropist has championed such an idea in Canada. In 1999, Blackberry developer and co-founder Mike Lazaridis established the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. The institute has since grown into a high-profile and globally significant research facility, supported by a combination of public and private funding.
Mr. Lee said the goal in Vancouver is to pursue a somewhat different plan, by facilitating strong collaborations among researchers in quantum gravity who have home bases elsewhere.
The institute would help advance science, he said, reinforce Canada’s role in the field and provide opportunities to develop or attract future Nobel laureates.
“You now, they don’t all have to leave in order to be recognized or to have ideas,” he said. “Maybe we can bring some of the world to Canada.”
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