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.