The Edge of Physics

Nature this week has two stories about the Perimeter Institute. There’s a long one entitled The edge of physics, which emphasizes Perimeter’s wealth and success, starting off:

Working at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics comes with certain perquisites. Whenever recruits arrive at the Toronto airport, for example, they are met by a limousine and driven west along Canada’s Route 401 into the rich farmlands of Ontario. Eighty-five kilometres later, the limousine works its way through the streets of the town of Waterloo, and lets them out in front of a sleek building of black, green and glass squares that stands next to a pond in Waterloo Park. Stepping inside, the recruits find wall-to-wall blackboards, working fireplaces, a sauna, multiple dispensers of free coffee and the Black Hole Bistro, which serves free lunches on Wednesdays.

Neil Turok is the new director, and he plans to double the full-time faculty from 12 to 25. The institute already has more theory postdocs than anywhere else in the world (44) and is aiming for a research staff of 250, including visitors. For comparison, the Princeton IAS has 5 permanent faculty in physics and about 20 postdocs. Perimeter has an endowment of 200 million Canadian dollars, a figure they hope to double.

The same issue has a review by Joao Magueijo of Howard Burton’s book about his experience as first director of Perimeter (my own review is here). Magueijo’s take on Perimeter is rather scathing, seeing it as a “sad tale”, having sold out on its original anti-establishment concept:

The institute’s aim was to “make waves, big waves”, and it got off to a promising start. Burton — a youthful outsider who had only just finished his physics PhD went about his job with maverick flair, challenging the scientific establishment, attacking its tribalism and allergy to innovation. Here was an opportunity to do things differently: to promote originality, to flatten hierarchy and empower the young researchers actively driving the field. It sounded utopian, but it was worth a try.

Unfortunately, reality failed to comply with Burton’s plan. The best days of this haven of free-thinking came while it was still a ‘theoretical’ theoretical physics institute — before the scientists arrived. The anecdotes Burton narrates in the chapter ‘The Trouble with Physicists’ ring hilariously true. But there was also a fatal flaw in Perimeter’s concept — scientists tend to define ‘originality’ as what they personally do. Soon the institute’s quest for novelty became hijacked by the agendas of the field’s usual culprits, and Burton himself came under attack from them….

Burton tried to replicate the US establishment in Canada, but he was often outbid and exploited by opportunists who used Perimeter as a trampoline to boost their US careers.

By the time Perimeter matured, five years later, the divide between the quixotic first hires and the new wave was painfully evident. The openness of the early days was replaced by Princeton-style hush-hush and invitation-only meetings. The idealists openly confessed that they wished they could find another benefactor, to “start anew and this time do it right”. Something had gone wrong: the sought utopia had become a dystopia.

Scientific originality has become big business: being anti-establishment sounds great. Yet few want to take the risks necessary to achieve it. Originality is encouraged in public pronouncements only to be punished when practical decisions are made. Perhaps Perimeter’s tale proves that there is no recipe for original science: it happens anarchically and by accident, in spite of, rather than because of, scientific institutions.

Update: Sabine Hossenfelder, who recently spent three years at PI, has her take on the Nature articles here.

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