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Hawking Centre opens to foster future Einsteins in Waterloo

Lukasz Cincio, a post doctoral reseracher, left, works through some tensor network algorithms with senior faculty member, Guifre Vidal, right, on the glass in one of the between-floor interaction centres equipped with special glass that turns opaque the more you are at right angles to it.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

It looks like a spaceship, feels like a playhouse and is designed to inspire researchers as they tackle some of the hardest problems in science.

The Stephen Hawking Centre, a 55,000-square-foot expansion to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., officially opens this weekend – a bold bet that a building can nurture genius, promote unconventional thinking and foster the kind of collaboration essential for success in many scientific fields.

"I know how important an inspirational environment is to get people excited and motivated to think about these most difficult, abstract theoretical ideas, like what happened at the Big Bang, what goes on inside a black hole and conceptualizing the way fundamental physics works," says Neil Turok, director of the institute. So, he set a simple but lofty goal for Teeple Architects Inc., the firm chosen to design the expansion.

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"We asked them to provide the optimal environment for the human mind to conceive of the universe."

What, exactly, does that kind of environment look like?

Natural light, good ventilation and a connection to the outside world are important for learning and thinking, says architect Stephen Teeple. To that end, the offices have large windows that look out onto a lake and there is a herb garden in the middle of the building.

A lot of thought also went into little things that would bring people together, he says. Bridges and staircases provide many different routes to a destination – be it a washroom, or the bistro on the ground floor. Three "interaction areas," adjacent to hallways, offer places to stop, chat and, if need be, scrawl equations on blackboards or glass boards.

Perimeter was created in 1999, by Research in Motion co-chief executive officer Michael Lazaridis, as an independent centre devoted to the study of fundamental questions in physics. The celebration to mark the opening of the new addition comes at a troubled time for RIM: The stock price fell 20 per cent Friday after second quarter results fell short of expectations.

The $29-million expansion was funded with a mix of private and public money, and doubles the size of the institute. At capacity, it will be the largest centre of its kind in the world, with room for 250 researchers.

The older part of building, completed in 2004, has more of an atmosphere of quiet contemplation. The addition has a younger, more playful spirit.

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"The people here are working on such difficult, often frustrating problems, doing long calculations. . . . One of the biggest problems is to keep them happy and motivated and feeling positive," says Dr. Turok. "To change it from a 'grindstone' environment to a playhouse is actually key."

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About the Author

Anne McIlroy has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She joined the Globe in 1996, and has been the science reporter as well as the parliamentary bureau chief. She studied journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. More

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