First Principles

I learned recently from Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog that there’s a new book out by Howard Burton, entitled First Principles: The Crazy Business of Doing Serious Science (she has some comments on the book here). It’s a fascinating and entertaining book. I couldn’t put it down this morning, so took a very long breakfast during which I finished reading it.

Burton got a Ph.D. in theoretical physics at the University of Waterloo, which led him (like most Ph.D.’s in theoretical physics) to need to find some sort of employment doing something else. He was saved from getting wealthy in the financial industry by Mike Lazaridis of RIM, who was on a list of people that Burton wrote to asking if they had any job openings. It turned out that Lazaridis was starting to think about the idea of funding a theoretical physics institute, and decided that Burton was just the person to hire to look into the idea.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is Burton’s description of the process he went through of talking to a large number of theorists around the world to get their ideas about the state of theoretical physics, and about what sort of well-funded new institute would be viable and make sense. An interesting problem to have, and one that he got a lot of good advice about from many people.

One of the main motivating ideas behind the founding of Perimeter was to support work on foundational issues that normally don’t get funded because they are considered “too hard” to make progress on. The other was to encourage openness and communication between groups that normally don’t talk to each other. Burton was quite struck by the situation with superstring theory (this was back in the late 1990s, long before the recent “string wars”):

…what did shock me was my growing awareness that the field was rife with dissention and sociological barriers. Superstring theorists, for example, did not interact in any meaningful way with people pursuing other approaches to the problem, and vice versa. Worse still, the groups were downright hostile to one another, lobbing ad hominem and defamatory attacks across one another’s bows, condemning mountains of work with a dismissive (and often ignorant) wave of the the hand while trumping up the claims of their own theories well beyond any defensible level… they were simply refusing to engage with one another, separating off into rival sects like high school gangs…

My first, albeit indirect, encounter with superstring theory was a perfect case in point. As a PhD student, I spent a good deal of time talking with Nemanja Kaloper… Actually Nemanja did most of the talking, particularly once he discovered that I had gone over to “the dark side” by opting to spend time learning various non-superstring approaches to quantum gravity instead of his beloved superstring theory. For Nemanja, this was nothing more than a time-wasting combination of obstinacy and simple-mindedness: superstring theory simply was quantum gravity; trying to learn quantum gravity without string theory made about as much sense as writing music without notes…

The more I kept my eyes open the more I realized that Nemanja’s behaviour was hardly unusual: indeed such counterproductive squabbling and rampant dogmatism existed on all sides of the issue, making it hard to see how any genuine progress in any direction might be attained in the near future…

The Olympian heights of pure reason, when examined in more detail, turned out to be reducible to a furiously contested form of highly esoteric tribal warfare.

The story of how Perimeter grew out of these ideas and came into being is a fascinating one, and Burton tells it with a sense of humor in a very entertaining way. He became executive director of the institute, all the while lacking the usual sort of credentials as an eminent researcher that would be expected for such a position. The book ends with a short epilogue discussing the fact that he was forced out of this position in June 2007:

The official reason given for my departure was that contract negotiations broke down, but I think it’s fair to say that such a justification hinges on a particularly loose interpretation of the world “negotiations”.

He speculates that the reason for this was the book he was writing:

So what on earth happened?

What happened, so far as I can determine, is the book you hold in your very hands. Bizarre as it may seem, it appears that a major preoccupation of the institute’s board of directors for the first six months of 2007 was what to do about this pernicious book, followed closely, presumably, by how to get rid of its author who had the brazen temerity to once again bring the dark story forward publicly.

I know nothing about what really happened, but if Burton is right that the book played such a role, that’s extremely odd. The book makes a wonderful case for Perimeter and what it has been doing, portraying it (accurately I think) as a big success. It does so in a way far more effective than the kind of PR materials such institutions usually hire professionals to produce.

Perimeter does seem to have become quite a success, playing an increasingly large role in the theoretical physics community. It now has a new director (cosmologist Neil Turok), plans to expand, and nine prominent members of the theoretical physics establishment have recently signed on as “Distinguished Research Chairs”. If anything, one might worry that the institution is in danger of too much conventional success, merging with the establishment that it was set up to provide somewhat of a challenge to. Their advertisements for new faculty specify that they are looking for people in “Cosmology and Quantum Information”. I don’t know much about the quantum information business, where they seem to be leaders, but these days the idea of a well-funded institute for cosmology isn’t exactly revolutionary (see here).

I’m curious to see what happens with Perimeter now that it’s entering adulthood, and glad to have read Burton’s book which does a great job of telling the story of its birth and infancy.

Update: Lubos has a posting about this, although it’s clear he hasn’t read the book. According to him Burton “managed to write a public text that exposes pretty much all the business (and personal) secrets of the Perimeter Institute. He wants to earn money by publishing this sensitive stuff.”

If you buy the book hoping to find out the “business (and personal) secrets” of PI, I think you’re going to be very disappointed.

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15 Responses to First Principles

  1. Thank you for shedding light on these beginnings. This is much better than a hazy, rose-colored “creation myth” growing up as penumbra to an organization.

  2. Bee says:

    Odd indeed, isn’t it? The only part of the book that is critical about PI is for all I can tell that epilogue.

    Howard’s assessment about groups that don’t talk to each other etc sounds very familiar doesn’t it? I think it’s good it is being said by somebody who has not been personally involved with either of these research topics. It would be interesting to know whether similar problems exist in other fields of science.

    From what I have seen in the last years, PI is just simply an excellent place (I don’t get paid for saying that, it’s true). They have some growing pains though that I am afraid will persist for some while. It won’t be easy for Neil.

  3. Matt Leifer says:

    Having recently made hires in quantum gravity and quantum foundations, I wouldn’t worry too much about PI losing its unconventional edge. They usually just focus on a couple of subject areas for hiring each year because they don’t have the resources to conduct a comprehensive search in all subject areas all of the time. They have recently lost Michael Nielsen in quantum information, meaning that quantum information and cosmology are currently the smallest groups, consisting of one researcher each.

  4. Chris W. says:

    Where is Nielsen going (or where has he gone)?

  5. Kea says:

    If you look at the PI website it says “Cosmology” OR “Quantum Information”. I would be much more impressed if the conjunction had in fact been used.

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  7. Matt Leifer says:

    Chris W.,

    As far as I am aware Nielsen has not taken another job, but has decided to focus on writing at the moment. See his blog for more news.

  8. anon. says:

    I can’t say I know Nemanja well, but I don’t see how any reasonable person could think he’s dogmatic.

  9. Chris W. says:

    It does so in a way far more effective than the kind of PR materials such institutions usually hire professionals to produce.

    There seems to be an inescapable dynamic at work in organizations, such that when they become prominent they become susceptible to a banal and paralyzing risk aversion—a stealthy form of risk-taking in itself.

    From Helen Keller, as quoted by former NASA program manager Donna Shirley:

    “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

  10. Joey Ramone says:

    Boy oh boy does Lubos go on and on and on.

    If it weren’t for String Theory’s ruse, which Lubos served for a short bit, would we even know who he is? He is definitely a case study of something–I’m not sure what yet–but something.

    He reminds me of all those eighties bands that grabbed onto the passing fads of hairspray and makeup.

    Then Kurt Cobain came along in his thriftstore sweaters, power chords, and simple production values and restored rock back to its proper roots, just as Woit has been retruning physics and philosophy to its natural, cordial roots. With Cobain and Woit, again one could see the humanity of the endeavor exalted over the corproate-state’s machine, reminding us of the reasons we love physics, philosophy, and rock’n’roll music; as the truth sets us free.

    I hang out with Cobain now and then, and while he has never heard of Lubos’ blog, he sometimes plays the bongos with Feynman.

    Here’s Dee Dee Ramone covering Curt Cobain’s Negative Creep, as sometimes we mentors become students, as our studnets become mentors:

    I wish that the String Theorists/antitheorists knew this–there is a time for everyone to step down and salute the new. But perhaps humility is harder for those yet waiting to succeed.

  11. mike says:

    “which led him (like most Ph.D.’s in theoretical physics) to need to find some sort of employment doing something else.”

    — Is it really that bad in theoretical physics? Gives new meaning to the term “is the end in sight for theoretical physics?”.

  12. Peter Woit says:


    Yes, the job situation of theoretical physics PhDs is bad, and has been bad for a long time. There’s nothing really new about this though, it has been the situation since about 1970…

  13. Jack Lothian says:

    True Peter, I left Physics in the early 70s because there were no jobs. Universities, junior colleges, etc were seeing massive drops in enrolment in the hard sciences, the aero & space sector was in a slump & we were between electronic innovation periods. It was a waste land for physics in particular & hard science in general. I remember when a recruiter showed up at our university & gave a presentation, it appeared every graduate student in physics attended and we were all looking for that job that did not seem to exist. When I left, I had the choice of a junior college or a long post-doc journey with no definite job at the end or a career change. Because I worked in Statistical Mechanics & most educated persons do not really know what that means, I got hired as an expert in statistics and eventually became a survey consultant. Physics was always my first love though & if I thought I had a real shot at doing it, I would have. My career change though did turn out to be a good second option.

    Sadly my experience is that science & math get lip service but little real support in our education system & culture. Most middle class families that I know want their children to get good marks in math & science in order to get into medicine, law or business schools. Science is a poor second choice & hard to do as well, so most students and parents see it as a dead end for a bright kid. Almost anything else is preferable.

  14. Paul Frampton says:

    My knowledge of Burton and PI stems from two visits: one day in 2004 then four months in 2005. That seminar was (I suspect) the last in Waterloo’s post office. I learned theoretical physics at PI. Howard had a PhD in physics, was not an active researcher, yet deserves credit for making almost everyone happy. I met Mike Lazaridis whose idea and resources underly PI. A little bird said he wanted editorial control of Howard’s book which I look forward to reading having ordered it from Canada. Turok is co-inventor with Steinhardt of cyclic cosmology a big idea.

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