The BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics

I learned this morning from Matin Durrani’s blog that the Perimeter Institute has announced today the first of what they expect to be five very well-funded Perimeter Research Chairs in theoretical physics. The next four will be named after Maxwell, Bohr, Einstein and Dirac (as well as whatever other wealthy individual or organization comes up with funding).

The BMO Financial Group is putting up $4 million and $4 million is coming out of the Perimeter endowment (which is mostly from Blackberry’s Mike Lazaridis). An endowment of $8 million for a chair is quite high. It seems that typical numbers for endowment payouts these days are around 5%, so this would make available $400,000 or so a year to pay some prominent theorist. For comparison, the Simons Foundation has recently announced that it will fund endowed Math+X chairs aimed at mathematicians working at the interface with some other subject. Simons may be the wealthiest hedge-fund manager in the world, but he’s a piker compared to the Canadian financiers, with only $1.5 million going to each chair (to be matched by $1.5 million from the institution that gets the chair, for a total of $3 million). Then again, it just may be that prominent mathematicians are dirt-cheap compared to prominent theoretical physicists.

The Perimeter Institute in recent years has moved away from supporting non-mainstream topics in theoretical physics, while expanding dramatically. The only two conferences announced there for the next year or so are on the topics of LHC physics and AdS/CFT, about as mainstream as one can possibly imagine. If they manage to fund what might be the five highest-paid theoretical physics positions in the world and hire the people they want into them, they will be well on their way to a dominant position in the subject. While, like most industries these days, the tactic here is to shower the top few people in the field with cash, they are also expanding their hiring at more junior levels. According to the rumor mill, last year out of a total of fourteen people hired to tenure-track positions in theoretical particle physics in North America, three of the fourteen went to Perimeter.

For more on this, see here, and an interview with Lazarides and the BMO CEO here.

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15 Responses to The BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics

  1. Gregor Samorasky says:

    Wow! Only “fourteen people hired to tenure-track positions in theoretical particle physics in North America”–in America and Canada combined!! Wow!!

    Who/where is still saying there will be a shortage of physicists?

    🙂

  2. Kalyan says:

    It would be nice if the 400K/yr funding would include 2-3 post doc salaries to both spread the wealth and support the chair holder.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Kalyan,

    PI already has about 45 postdocs, and surely their new 400K/yr researcher will have some say in choosing these.

    Actually, if they’re taking $4 million out of the endowment, that may mean a bit less money for postdocs.

  4. $$$$ says:

    half would go in Canadian taxes?

  5. Mark Decker says:

    It is sad that Perimeter has become more mainstream. Kind of defeats their original purpose? Look on the bright side though. If string theory is eventually verified then movie theaters will be able to start showing movies in 11-D. I wonder what the glasses will look like?

  6. Robert Guttenberg says:

    Are these chair endownments higher than those at the IAS? I read Simonyi donated $25 million in 2005…

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Robert,

    The Simonyi $25 million was a general gift, not for an endowed chair. Looking at the IAS site, the last gift of an endowed chair that I see announced was at $5 million. It’s unclear exactly how Perimeter plans to spend the $8 million, and at other institutions one doesn’t know for sure if an announced gift for an endowed chair will cover the entire expenses involved.

    For another point of comparison, endowed chairs at Harvard Law School supposedly go for $4 million, and law professors tend to be among the best paid of academics.

    All in all, theoretical physics may not be doing so well intellectually, but it appears that the financial prospects of its stars are bright.

  8. rrtucci says:

    I think this is so wrong. A good theoretical physicist does does not crave for large amounts of money. Large amounts of money just distract and pervert him.

    Anyway, how long can BMO continue their charitable contributions at high levels. Not very long, I dare say. Their products have become quite obsolete in the past year, due to Android and iPhone.

  9. rrtucci says:

    Also, good theorists usually thrive in places where there is good experimental physics going on too. (Think Bell Labs) My impression is that Canada has very little good experimental physics and technology going on. In my field of quantum computing, they are a giant flop. Perimeter institute specializes in turkey technology like quantum cryptography (which is snakeoil) and NMR quantum computers (which are non-scalable and an obvious dead end)

  10. Peter Woit says:

    rrtucci,

    BMO is the Bank of Montreal, and as far as I know Canadian banks are doing fine. It’s RIM, the company of Lazaridis that makes the Blackberry.

  11. rrtucci says:

    Yes. I should have said RIM.

    Why is BMO doing this.? I thought Canadian banks are much less leveraged, and therefore poorer than American ones. Is Lazarides behind this BMO move, somehow?

  12. Peter Woit says:

    rrtucci,

    On the scale that large financial organizations operate the highest paid theorist in the world is working for peanuts, and funding even the most highly endowed chair in the world doesn’t involve coming up with what they consider a lot of money. I believe BMO’s profits are a couple billion dollars a year or so.

  13. anon. says:

    I’ve been trying to think of anyone who is prestigious enough to live up to PI’s expectations for these chairs, but also plausibly willing to leave their current job and move to Waterloo. I’m coming up short.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    anon.,

    It’s not just “leave their current job and move to Waterloo”, but maybe “leave their current job, where things are kind of depressing, move to Waterloo, double their salary and be able to hire lots of people in your field”. One advantage Perimeter has is that lots of other places are in financial trouble (think University of California, Great Britain and lots of the rest of Europe). Many US physics departments aren’t so keen on speculative things like quantum gravity research these days (be it string theory, loop quantum gravity or anything else). So there are not a lot of places out there offering well-paid positions to theorists at a large and expanding theory group. The Simons Center at Stony Brook is in a somewhat similar position, but they’re going after mathematicians and the mathematical end of theoretical physics, which is something Perimeter doesn’t seem to have much interest in.

    So, it’s not an easily solved problem, but neither is it an insoluble one…

  15. Jack Lothian says:

    rrtucci,

    I am not sure that being less levered makes one poorer? Some might argue the opposite. Canadian banks operate under tighter regulation than American banks. The few Canadian banks rival the larger American banks in size & have earned incredible returns year-in-year-out for over a century. Unlike in the US, in Canada, small banks do not exist. So despite the fact Canada is a tenth of the size of the US, our banks are very big by North Americam standards. I suspect our big 5 banks rank in the top 25 banks in North America.

    Waterloo is not out in the Canadian wilderness. It is effectively a suburb of Toronto which is very big city even by American standards & it consistenly ranks well in various surveys of city quality. I agree it is not currently a hotbed of experimental physics research but there are a lot of very good universities situtated within a hundred miles of the PI. Waterloo is dead center in our largest concentration of universities. During the previous tech boom many of these universities did stand out.

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