July 8, 2012
July 8, 2012
World-renowned physicist, Hawking collaborator and social innovator Neil Turok brings his mission to Waterloo: “We’ve got big plans.Very big plans.”
July 8, 2012
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…
July 8, 2012
One of the more challenging aspects of writing a column about the politics of U.S. foreign policy is trying to fully understand the views of average voters on national security and foreign-policy issues. In this regard, Benjamin Valentino, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, has only made life more difficult. Last month he released a fascinating poll examining public attitudes on America’s role in the world, the country’s current alliance structure, and its foreign-policy preferences — and it provided a somewhat schizophrenic and at times irreconcilable perspective on how Americans view the world and America’s place in it. So rather than try to makes heads or tails of the results, I went to the source and sat down for an email interview with Valentino in which we discussed what he believes the poll tells us about current foreign-policy attitudes.
July 8, 2012
To live in any large city during the 19th century, at a time when the state provided little in the way of a safety net, was to witness poverty and want on a scale unimaginable in most Western countries today. In London, for example, the combination of low wages, appalling housing, a fast-rising population and miserable health care resulted in the sharp division of one city into two. An affluent minority of aristocrats and professionals lived comfortably in the good parts of town, cossetted by servants and conveyed about in carriages, while the great majority struggled desperately for existence in stinking slums where no gentleman or lady ever trod, and which most of the privileged had no idea even existed. It was a situation accurately and memorably skewered by Dickens, who in Oliver Twist introduced his horrified readers to Bill Sikes’s lair in the very real and noisome Jacob’s Island, and who has Mr. Podsnap, in Our Mutual Friend, insist: “I don’t want to know about it; I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!”
Out of sight and all too often out of mind, the working people of the British capital nonetheless managed to conjure livings for themselves in extraordinary ways. Our guide to the enduring oddity of many mid-Victorian occupations is Henry Mayhew, whose monumental four-volume study ofLondon Labour and the London Poor remains one of the classics of working-class history. Mayhew–whom we last met a year ago, describing the lives of London peddlers of this period–was a pioneering journalist-cum-sociologist who interviewed representatives of hundreds of eye-openingly odd trades, jotting down every detail of their lives in their own words to compile a vivid, panoramic overview of everyday life in the mid-Victorian city.
Among Mayhew’s more memorable meetings were encounters with the “bone grubber,” the “Hindoo tract seller,” an eight-year-old girl watercress-seller and the “pure finder,” whose surprisingly sought-after job was picking up dog mess and selling it to tanners, who then used it to cure leather. None of his subjects, though, aroused more fascination–or greater disgust–among his readers than the men who made it their living by forcing entry into London’s sewers at low tide and wandering through them, sometimes for miles, searching out and collecting the miscellaneous scraps washed down from the streets above: bones, fragments of rope, miscellaneous bits of metal, silver cutlery and–if they were lucky–coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the gutters.
Mayhew called them “sewer hunters” or “toshers,” and the latter term has come to define the breed, though it actually had a rather wider application in Victorian times–the toshers sometimes worked the shoreline of the Thames rather than the sewers, and also waited at rubbish dumps when the contents of damaged houses were being burned and then sifted through the ashes for any items of value. They were mostly celebrated, nonetheless, for the living that the sewers gave them, which was enough to support a tribe of around 200 men–each of them known only by his nickname: Lanky Bill, Long Tom, One-eyed George, Short-armed Jack. The toshers earned a decent living; according to Mayhew’s informants, an average of six shillings a day–an amount equivalent to about $50 today. It was sufficient to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class–and, as the astonished writer noted, “at this rate, the property recovered from the sewers of London would have amounted to no less than £20,000 [today $3.3 million] per annum.”
The toshers’ work was dangerous, however, and–after 1840, when it was made illegal to enter the sewer network without express permission, and a £5 reward was offered to anyone who informed on them–it was also secretive, done mostly at night by lantern light. “They won’t let us in to work the shores,” one sewer-hunter complained, “as there’s a little danger. They fears as how we’ll get suffocated, but they don’t care if we get starved!”…