Science

Perimeter’s Heart

World-renowned physicist and social innovator Neil Turok brings his mission to Waterloo

An hour before the lecture, the overflow room in the basement of Waterloo Collegiate Institute was already filling up. I double-checked with the volunteer at the door, to make sure I understood what I was seeing. Every month during the school year, eager science fans snap up free tickets to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics’ public lecture as soon as they appear online, she told me. The fifty or so people in the cafeteria had missed out in the virtual stampede, but they were here anyway, hoping some of the lucky ticket holders wouldn’t show up, and otherwise resigned to watching University of Oxford physicist Sir Roger Penrose on a screen in the basement. Penrose was a big draw, the woman said, but the run on tickets, the electric atmosphere, and the long line snaking down the hall outside the men’s washroom were regular features of physics night in Waterloo.

The auditorium itself looked more like Barack Obama’s Greek temple at last year’s Democratic convention than a high school stage, with elegant coloured lighting, spiral galaxies projected on the walls, and multiple backdrops featuring the twin Doric pillars of the Perimeter Institute logo. Shortly after 7 p.m., a tall man with dark, curly hair rose to introduce Penrose, leaving his windbreaker and backpack on the ground beside his front-row seat. Surveying the crowd of 600, he smiled. “This is actually my first day at work,” he began.

Neil Turok had recently left the ivy and cobblestones of the University of Cambridge, where he headed the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology and collaborated closely with Stephen Hawking, to take over as the executive director of Perimeter, the upstart institute anchored by $150 million of BlackBerry creator Mike Lazaridis’s personal fortune. News of Turok’s defection had been greeted with consternation in British newspapers, and with raised eyebrows by some elite physicists. If Turok himself had entertained doubts, some of them had been allayed by the enthusiastic turnout for his own lecture in the same series seven months earlier, in March 2008. (He had unofficially accepted the new job a few weeks prior to that, though it wouldn’t be announced publicly until May.) “I must tell you that from the outside world, when we heard that this very surprising, innovative institute for theoretical physics was being placed in Waterloo, we did wonder,” he’d told the audience. “Why put it in the middle of nowhere? But I guess you’re the answer to that question.”

The Penrose lecture took place on October 1, and since then the scope of Turok’s ambitions has become apparent. In late November, he captured the attention of Canadians with the announcement that Hawking, probably the most recognizable scientist in the world, will spend several weeks each year in Waterloo, starting this summer. That’s relatively minor news for physicists, though, compared with the series of initiatives that will see Perimeter — already one of the largest assemblies of theoretical physicists on the planet — grow dramatically over the next few years. The number of faculty is slated to grow from ten to twenty-five, and the number of post-doctoral researchers from forty-four to sixty; thirty-nine other renowned scientists will join Hawking in making Perimeter their second research home; and promising young hotshots from around the world will flock to a new graduate course starting this fall. Turok’s vision, backed by Lazaridis’s millions, offers theoretical physicists a crucial shot of confidence at a time when critics both inside and outside the field are accusing physics of losing its way, with ever more abstruse theories drifting further and further from observed reality.

For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, physics bounced from one major success to another. Elegant experiments tested and confirmed even wildly counterintuitive theories like quantum mechanics, and new theories in turn explained the puzzling results of experiments and observations. But since the 1970s, this symbiosis between fundamental theory and experiment has eroded, as theories have raced ahead of our ability to test them. The new Large Hadron Collider near Geneva should finally allow scientists to prove (or rule out) the existence of the elusive Higgs boson, first predicted in the 1960s, the only particle posited by the standard model of particle physics that has yet to be observed. But the answers to other key questions remain out of reach.

In 1996, science journalist John Horgan wrote a book called The End of Science, in which he argued that physicists had made all the major breakthroughs they would ever make. What was left was either detail work or else beyond our comprehension. Moreover, he said, the theories physicists were then pursuing about the origin of the universe and the nature of time and space had become impossible to test — and a theory untested by experiment is philosophy, not science.

Since the mid-1980s, theoretical physics has been dominated by string theory, which posits that all particles and forces in the universe are manifestations of the vibrations of infinitesimally small pieces of string. The theory (or theories — there are numerous variations) produces beautiful mathematics and accounts for a range of observed phenomena. But it also imposes some awkward constraints. If it’s true, then we live in a universe with ten or eleven dimensions, some of them too small to detect. Horgan argued that it would take a particle accelerator more than 300,000 times bigger than our solar system to directly test for the strings’ existence.

The End of Science spoke to a debate about not only what physicists were studying, but how they were studying it. Critics were at the time asserting that calcified academic hierarchies made it difficult for physicists to undertake risky or unorthodox research — a particular problem given that breakthroughs typically come from young researchers following their own interests. It was in this context, in the late 1990s, that Research in Motion founder and co-ceo Mike Lazaridis began to explore the idea of setting up a centre to probe fundamental questions about the universe.

The Perimeter Institute set out in 2001 with a core staff of nine scientists organized in a flat hierarchy, and with a commitment to balancing mainstream and non-mainstream approaches to uncovering the essential nature of space, time, matter, and information. “The idea was that when there are competing approaches to a problem, you don’t choose, you just get the best people on both sides,” says Lee Smolin, one of the initial faculty hires. Research was “non-directed,” and the institute encouraged its young post-docs to pursue their own ideas rather than simply assist senior researchers. Some aspects of Perimeter’s structure have changed since it opened — it introduced the traditional university concept of tenure, for example, in 2007 — but the basic elements remain unchanged.

Perimeter’s first executive director was Howard Burton, whom Lazaridis hired straight out of the Ph.D. program of Waterloo’s physics department in 1999. Turok’s hiring marks the institute’s first regime change, and observers are watching closely to see what he will do. “It’s hard to imagine that he won’t succeed,” says David Gross, the winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics and a mentor to Turok since their time as colleagues at Princeton. “The only question is, in what direction?” Gross’s point is fair: Turok’s fame rests on two very different foundations. He is the co-champion, along with Princeton physicist Paul J. Steinhardt, of a “cyclic universe” theory that challenges the conventional understanding of cosmic history. And he’s the founder of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, a bold mix of international development, capacity building, and high-level education based in a suburb of Cape Town. “I think the success of aims really turned him on to science leadership,” Gross says.

Turok’s challenge in balancing his two interests was evident on his first day at work. Before attending the Penrose lecture, he had given a talk of his own to a group of eminent physicists who had gathered at Perimeter to discuss quantum mechanics and the nature of time. After hearing Penrose speak at the high school nearby, Turok returned once again to Perimeter, this time for a late-evening conference dinner hosted in the urbane Black Hole Bistro on the fourth floor. As the attendees dined on a meal featuring osso buco, parmesan risotto, and pumpkin brûlée, Turok divided his attention between his fellow physicists and the steady stream of government officials and other guests periodically introduced to him by Perimeter’s director of external relations and outreach, John Matlock.

“Neil’s been given the keys to the kingdom, and he knows exactly what he wants to do with them,” Matlock said. “He’s out to find the next Einstein.” Turok looked a little tired, his hair askew — but he firmly shook every proffered hand, radiating enthusiasm. “We’ve got big plans,” he told me, smiling widely. “Very big plans.”

The big bang is one of those canonical bits of science we’ve all internalized. First there was nothing, then there was a massive explosion, and then there was a universe composed of the shrapnel from that explosion. Or something like that. There are some very good reasons to believe in the big bang — two of the best being Edwin Hubble’s observations, in 1929, that all galaxies are moving away from us, and that the more distant galaxies are moving away more quickly; and the 1964 discovery of the cosmic microwave background, a faint radio signal that comes to us from all directions, which scientists interpret as radiation left over from the aftermath of the initial bang, nearly 14 billion years ago.

Some questions about the big bang theory persist, though, including the one Turok’s favourite childhood teacher put to him a few years ago: “What banged?” Knowing that the universe is expanding, we can extrapolate backwards in time to a point when the universe was infinitely small and infinitely dense. At that singularity, the math breaks down: the theory simply can’t tell us anything about what banged.

In addition to this metaphysical sticking point, the big bang picture runs into some practical problems when physicists try to calculate how the universe has evolved. One is explaining why the universe looks smooth and homogeneous in every direction, when a violent explosion should have left different regions with vast discrepancies in such properties as density. One proposed solution stipulates that the universe initially expanded extremely rapidly, doubling 100,000 times in a billionth of a billionth of a trillionth of a second — a smoothing procedure known as “inflation,” put forward in 1981 by mit professor Alan Guth. Complicating matters was the discovery during the 1990s of a mysterious substance called dark energy, which forced physicists to conclude that expansion must have sped up once again, nine billion years after the big bang, and that it will continue to accelerate until the universe has been diluted into a nearly perfect vacuum.

What set out as an appealingly simple picture of our origins — the one most of us take for granted — thereby started to look more like a Rube Goldberg machine, with multiple additional parts grafted on to keep theory consistent with observed reality. “What’s good is that there’s a growing body of experimental checks,” Smolin says. In April, for example, the European Space Agency will launch the Planck satellite, which will measure minuscule variations in the cosmic microwave background, checking for features predicted by competing models. “It would be very hard for Planck to rule out inflation completely,” says Ghazal Geshnizjani, a post-doctoral cosmologist from Iran who came to Perimeter in 2007. “But it could definitely rule out the simplest version.” Even that correction would be significant, though, because the more you have to patch a model, the more you start to wonder whether there’s something wrong with its core.

This is the line of thought that brought Turok and Steinhardt to propose a radical departure from the inflationary model. The cyclic universe theory, described in their 2007 book, Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang, presents the big bang as just one in an endless series of collisions between our universe and a parallel one situated a tiny distance away along a hidden dimension. These collisions happen once every trillion or so years, each time sparking the evolution of planets, stars, and galaxies, in a way that doesn’t require patching in an arbitrary period of ultra-rapid expansion. In the cyclic model, our current universe will continue to expand until it is nearly featureless. Then tiny quantum ripples in spacetime will amplify during the buildup to the next big bang, forming the seeds of the next cycle’s galaxies. This, Turok and Steinhardt argue, is the answer to the question “What banged?”

The elements of the hypothesis that would seem most implausible to a layperson — parallel universes, extra dimensions — are garden-variety constructs in string theory. Still, the cyclic theory is at odds with the prevailing view among physicists. Indeed, after Turok had presented his model at a conference of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States a few years ago, Guth began his own talk with an attack on his colleague’s theory, complete with a slide showing a caricature of Turok as a monkey. The incident ruffled feathers, though Turok downplays it as an anomaly. “I was sorry that it came out in the press, because it was misleading — we actually get on very well,” he says. “But it is true it happened, and it is true that the audience was quite shocked.”

Turok’s willingness to pursue ideas outside the mainstream made him a good fit, scientifically, to lead the institute. His theory has since moved in from the margins, to the point that many observers consider it one of several credible alternatives to the still-dominant inflationary picture. Resolving the debate will likely fall to the new generation of theorists. “Younger people vote with their feet, and they work on what they think is exciting,” Turok says. “So in a way, the older people’s opinions don’t matter so much. I’m getting into that class.”

In his study of what motivates and guides physicists over the course of their careers, sociologist Joseph C. Hermanowicz recognized the central role played by past heroes. “The scientist, like the artist or the athlete, follows a pantheon of immortals,” he wrote. Most start with the general goal of joining that pantheon, perhaps by having an effect or a theory named after them, but their ambitions adapt over time, according to circumstance and ability.

Turok has, by anyone’s standards, done exceptionally well in this quest (and he can, in fact, lay claim to the Hawking-Turok instanton theory). But at fifty, his focus is as much on finding the next Einstein as on becoming that person. Next Einstein is actually the name of an initiative Turok launched last spring to raise money for the creation of aims centres across Africa — a choice of words he hesitated over. “In theoretical physics,” he says, “you don’t take Einstein lightly. You don’t use his name in vain.” Perimeter will inaugurate a similar program this fall, and though it will have a different name it will be structured much like the aims program: as an intensive ten-month course combining lectures from prominent experts with brief research stints. Turok will nurture links to Africa, while other Perimeter faculty, from India, Argentina, and elsewhere, will do the same with their home countries. “I want PI to serve as a heart for circulating brains, pumping brains around the world,” he says. It is this large-scale opportunity, more than any particular research agenda, that lured Turok, against his initial instincts and despite the advice of mentors such as Gross, to Perimeter.

Turok’s instinct for action beyond academia traces back to his upbringing in South Africa. He was born in Johannesburg in 1958, the son of anti-apartheid activists Mary and Ben Turok. His father was arrested for sabotage in 1962, and served three years in Pretoria Central Prison; his mother was also imprisoned for a time. Upon his father’s release, the family went to Kenya, then Tanzania. In 1968, when Neil was ten, they moved to London, where Ben became the editor of Sechaba, the official journal of the African National Congress. The dislocations of childhood prepared Neil for the nomadic life of a young physicist. Listening to him speak now, the plummy tones of Cambridge, where he started as an undergraduate in 1977, are easier to detect than the clipped vowels of his native South Africa. He returned to Cambridge in 1997, after Ph.D. studies at Imperial College in London, further work in Santa Barbara and Chicago, and a professorship at Princeton.

His parents returned to South Africa in 1993, and both were elected as anc representatives to the country’s parliament when apartheid ended. He was still a full-time faculty member at Cambridge when he set up aims, which began operations in 2003, backed by a partnership between the South African universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and the Western Cape, and the European ones of Cambridge, Oxford, and Paris-Sud. aims attracts promising students from across Africa who have just completed their undergraduate studies. Some go on to pursue further graduate work in mathematical sciences; Turok’s hope is that they will become leaders in whatever field they choose.

“What I saw at aims is the power of mathematical thinking to cut across all cultures and countries,” he says. “The students who arrive at aims are Muslim, Christian, francophone, anglophone, Arab, brown, yellow, white, black. Africa’s incredibly diverse, and many of their countries have been at war. And yet in a short space of time, just thinking about math and science and physics and computing, all those differences disappear. Basically, we’re all kind of humbled in the face of this higher-level knowledge.” Sending these people back into the real world, where they may end up in government or industry or the media, strikes Turok as an eminently worthy goal: “I genuinely believe it’s a force for peace in the future.”

This is the vision that brought Turok to the attention of the wider world. Last year, he received an award for social innovation at the World Summit on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Dubai, and a prestigious ted (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize at a conference in California, joining previous winners such as Bono and Bill Clinton. And he got a call from the Perimeter Institute.

Perimeter’s home is a jutting, angular, concrete and glass structure overlooking a pastoral stretch of bike path and an old millpond in the heart of Waterloo. Slated for expansion this summer, the building, which opened in 2004, was conceived in close consultation with Perimeter’s scientists. The south facade, with windows punctuating a black aluminum surface like Tetris pieces, was “designed to mimic the experience we might have when confronting esoteric scientific discourse,” one of the architects told Canadian Architect magazine in 2005. The interior, by contrast, is light filled and warm, with glass-walled offices arranged to maximize views of the water yet permit privacy when desired. The hallways are scattered with comfortable nooks furnished with easy chairs, and floor-to-ceiling chalkboards ready to capture the fleeting moments of inspiration that sometimes occur when physicists collide.

Turok’s office is comfortably appointed, with a sleekly modern inner sanctum featuring metal-trimmed furniture and an abstract photograph that picks up the electric yellow-green colour of the wall. The outer room has a warmer feel, with an earth-toned rug, two leather chairs and a loveseat in dark green, and a painting of a wooden fence in the snow. Next to a wall-sized window where snowflakes drifted past, a fireplace flickered so picturesquely that on my first visit I assumed it was a gas fire until, partway through our conversation, a log suddenly shifted in a shower of sparks.

Despite the idyllic setting, Turok’s initial response to the Perimeter board’s job offer was a firm no. He was happy at Cambridge, both personally and professionally. Still, he saw Lazaridis’s commitment to theoretical physics, at a time when so many publicly doubted its power, as an important opportunity. So he agreed to sit on Perimeter’s scientific advisory board. “I came over, and I said, ‘You should do A, B, C, D.’ And more or less immediately, they came back to me and said, ‘Well, you should do it.’”

It was a challenge and a responsibility — a burden, even. “This guy was saying to us, ‘Here are some serious resources. Can you use them to really stimulate progress in the field?’” Turok eventually decided he had to try. In January 2008, while he was in New York preparing his ted Prize acceptance speech, Lazaridis came to see him personally. “I looked him in the eye,” Turok recalls, “and I said, ‘Mike, if I do this, it’s because I believe in it. And I want the freedom to do it well.’” Freedom meant, among other things, asking foundational questions without having to consider whether the answers would yield commercial gadgets. Lazaridis was happy to make that promise, and every other one Turok requested. “At that point,” Turok says, “I felt I couldn’t really say no.” Perimeter announced the appointment in May, a month before Lazaridis announced a further $50-million gift to the institute, topping up his initial $100 million.

When the key principles for Perimeter were first drawn up, the fifth and final element was that it should develop a strong public presence. (The other four were that it should be independent; focus on foundational, non-directed research; be resident based; and have a flat hierarchy.) The institute has pursued that goal through such iniatives as the public lecture series, now broadcast on the Discovery Channel. Turok’s “saving the world through physics” agenda is a new focus, but it builds on these existing efforts to engage with the world at large.

In early December, Turok outlined his plans for the institute to a group of scientists who had come to Waterloo for a five-day conference. “There has never been an investment in our field on this scale,” he told them. “In all of history.” The gathering was in itself an example of Perimeter’s unorthodox approach. Rather than flying in potential post-docs for research presentations and interviews, as is customary, Perimeter had simultaneously assembled twenty-six recent and soon-to-be Ph.D.s and had them give talks to each other. They came from universities and laboratories in eleven different countries, from Italy to Israel to India, and their expertise spanned particle physics, quantum gravity, cosmology, quantum information, and string theory. Smolin, the conference organizer, acknowledged on the first morning of talks that it was unusual to mix scientists from such disparate fields, but noted also that combatting the prevailing trend of extreme specialization is one of Perimeter’s ideals. “We all have the same goal, which is to discover the laws of nature,” he said. “It’s silly to talk about ‘interdisciplinarity,’ because we’re all in the same discipline.” The real goal, he quipped, was to promote “disciplinarity.”

Then the young physicists took over, guiding the audience through their onscreen presentations with a tattered black and gold hockey stick (“In Spain, we use the sword of a bullfighter,” joked Enrique Fernandez-Borja, a quantum gravity theorist from the University of Valencia). The talks were challenging, even for such a rarefied audience. Later that night, though, in the more casual setting of the Black Hole Bistro, ideas flowed freely. Over a table laden with wine and cheese, a Canadian post-doc claimed that if the difficulties plaguing the Large Hadron Collider could be worked out, the accelerator might finally detect dark matter. “If the lhc doesn’t find anything — the Higgs, at least — that’s it,” he said, gesturing expansively. “Particle physics is over.”

Across the room, a cosmology grad student from Caltech was weighing her beliefs about the origins of the universe. “I’m about seventy percent inflationary, thirty percent cyclic,” she said. The findings of the Planck satellite, due to reach its final orbit 2.4 million kilometres from Earth later this year, would represent a crucial test, she noted. If it succeeded in detecting gravitational waves, that would rule out the cyclic theory. Stephen Hawking, for one, thinks that’s exactly what will happen — and he has backed that up by making a public bet with Turok.

Turok was playing the role of host at the reception, circulating and welcoming the visitors, but it’s ultimately his scientific leadership that will guide Perimeter’s new post-docs in their quest to join the pantheon of great physicists. That means pushing theories — even cherished ones — to their limits, and keeping an eye on experimental results. On that front, he and Hawking were still working out the terms of their bet. “He’s going to fly in space on Virgin Galactic in, I think, eighteen months’ time, so I said, ‘Okay, let’s make that the bet: if I win, I go,” Turok said, grinning. “But he wouldn’t agree to that.” Whatever the terms, the outcome won’t be determined by abstract beauty or mathematical symmetry. “Stephen is a great one for sticking to principle and saying, ‘That’s what the theory predicts, but if the data disagree I accept that I’m wrong.”

Alex Hutchinson is a fitness and travel writer, and a frequent Walrus contributor. He writes the Globe and Mail’s Jockology column.