Creating Another Einstein

The money and intrigue behind Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute.

What would it take to produce another Einstein? That is a question that returns with cyclical regularity in the physics community. But there is no need for the world to wait for someone of Albert Einstein’s remarkable vision and achievement to just happen along, not when we have got an Einstein factory right here in Canada.

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo is Canada’s premier hothouse for nurturing the best and brightest physicists from around the world in pursuit of the elusive answers to the Big Questions of the universe. Although Einstein is not actually mentioned in the mission statement of the Perimeter Institute, the place was set up for precisely the kind of dramatic scientific breakthroughs that have made him such an icon.

The institute did not, of course, spring into existence fully formed. It was born in the fall of 1999, the child of Mike Lazaridis, a wealthy Waterloo entrepreneur with a passion for Big Science, and Howard Burton, an unemployed PhD in physics from Toronto who was frantically seeking an alternative to the soul-destroying job he had just accepted as a Wall Street derivatives trader. In desperation, Burton sent letters introducing himself to a number of CEOs, hoping someone, somewhere, would save him. Lazaridis did, hiring him to head a project to create a theoretical physics institute with $100 million of Lazaridis’s money, over coffee and a handshake.

What happened after that makes for a remarkable and unconventional story, which Burton tells with a bold and biting humour and surprising candour. First Principles: The Crazy Business of Doing Serious Science is a rollicking, tell-all (well, almost all) story of the creation of the Perimeter Institute from the perspective of a man who has his fingerprints all over the place. Burton’s take on closed-door meetings with scientists, administrators and government officials is, at times, laugh-out-loud funny, but it will come as no surprise to anyone reading this book that Burton’s blistering appraisals of his subjects might well have cost him his job, even though apparently he did not see it coming.

But that is the end of the story, not the beginning. Lazaridis, who was making a fortune along with his partners in Research In Motion with the now ubiquitous BlackBerry, wanted to create an environment for really smart people to work on some of the Big Questions in theoretical physics, with hopes for the kind of big breakthroughs that change the face of science. There are lots of trouble spots in physics, such as the head scratcher about harnessing the resources of “parallel universes” to create über-powerful quantum computers. Or trying to identify the mysterious and undetected dark matter and dark energy that appear to make up almost all of the known universe.

What was key for Einstein was having the time and space to think. He did not work in academia during his early fruitful years. In 1905, he was struggling to get his doctoral thesis accepted, and he could not get a job at a university. He ended up instead working at the Swiss patent office, a relatively undemanding job. He later told a friend that he was fortunate to have been free of the onerous career demands placed on young professors so that he had time to think.

Einstein soon landed a position as a professor in Prague, with all the time pressures that went with it, but it was not long before he was recruited as the director of a new institute in Berlin. There, he had a most undemanding workload, no teaching requirements and no necessity of supervising doctoral students. This was an ideal situation because it once again gave him time to think.

Today, if one wanted to create a new think tank from scratch—from first principles—it would most likely start with a scientific advisory committee, a group of academics fronted by a Big Name scientist. The committee would put forward a proposal, pitching the idea to administrators at various universities to see which one would be willing to ante up space on campus for the privilege of having bragging rights to the new institute, followed by several years of lobbying to lock in crucial government funding—absolutely necessary because no self-respecting university administrator would contemplate so much as turning on the lights for them without being first assured that the university would get its cut of the promised funding.

But Lazaridis and Burton did very little the usual way. They started with money, lots of it. Lazaridis’s initial plan was to set up the institute as a charitable foundation, and he figured his $100 million would be enough to keep it running for 30 years. He promptly ran into tax laws that prohibited any one person from contributing more than 50 percent to a registered public charity.

So Lazaridis tapped fellow RIM co-founder Doug Fregin for $10 million. And, later, RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie kicked in another ten. By Christmas of 1999, they had a board of directors made up mainly of Lazaridis’s friends and colleagues, $40 million in funding—$20 million from Fregin and Balsillie and a matching amount from Lazaridis—and a target date of the fall of 2000 to announce the new institute, with research to start up in the fall of 2001. Only they did not have a plan for how the institute would operate, and the executive director of this operation, with his newly minted PhD, was most certainly not a Big Name in science or anywhere else.

When Burton took on the task of creating a new theoretical physics institute, at the top of his list was attracting high-calibre physicists and giving them lots of time and space to think about the institute’s chosen research areas: string theory, the foundations of quantum theory, quantum gravity and quantum computing. In early 2000, he gamely went off in search of information on how to set up and run a theoretical physics institute.

But he had a major handicap as he headed out around the world to pick the brains of directors of physics institutes. Lazaridis’s involvement was a strict secret, lest rumours start circulating that might adversely affect the value of RIM shares. This left Burton in the uncomfortable position of calling up such famous physicists as Freeman Dyson, Frank Wilczek and Lee Smolin to ask if they would meet with him—someone they had never heard of and who did not work for any physics organization they had ever heard of—to get advice on how set up a new physics institute being funded by a private donation from a man whose identity was shrouded in secrecy. Burton was worried that he might seem like some kind of nutcase, but he mostly got sympathetic hearings and lots of conflicting advice.

In April 2000, while Burton was meeting with scientists in California, the tech bubble burst and, as Burton put it, “all the money we were counting on was wrapped up in the value of Mike’s RIM shares, which were falling like stones with each passing hour.” He could not reach Lazaridis to find out whether all their big plans had just evaporated, and he certainly could not share his worries with anyone. By the time the dust settled, RIM stocks had dropped from $250 a share to $20. But it seems that Lazaridis had decided to create his institute when his shares were worth even less, and he had not changed his mind. The project was still a go.

By the summer, Burton and the directors had a pretty good idea of what kind of institute they wanted. In particular, they wanted to remain independent of the constraints imposed on and by any university, much to the disappointment of University of Waterloo president David Johnston, who would have been more than happy to have bragging rights to the institute.

While touring other institutes, Burton had also recruited Big Names to sit on the all-important Scientific Advisory Committee. It was most helpful to have such noted scientists as Sir Roger Penrose, Christopher Isham, Artur Ekert and Jim Hartle signing on to the project. Of course, a SAC with Big Names can present problems. As the then president of the Santa Fe Institute advised Burton, “an advisory committee can sometimes be a royal pain. Most of them have rampaging egos and are convinced they should make all the decisions, but that would be a huge mistake: they’re all brilliant, of course, but brilliant at science, not management … You can’t let them run the place—it would go down the tubes in a heartbeat.”

Once the SAC was in place, it was time to start recruiting the scientific talent, no small effort given that the Perimeter Institute was not offering tenure. For scientists to be expected to give up their hard-earned tenure for the charms of an institute that, at this point, existed in name only was, said Burton, “little less than sheer lunacy.”

It was just about this time that the glaring difference between Burton’s status and that of the scientists on the advisory committee and the scientific talent they were trying to recruit became painfully obvious. Said Burton, “I was caught in a Groucho Marxian nightmare of creating a club that I shouldn’t even be a member of, let alone lead.” He knew fairly early on that at some point he would become the “Achilles heel” as the scientists gained more control over the creation of the institute. Lazaridis, he predicted, would be tolerated as the donor. “The knives for me, on the other hand, would come out immediately.”

Burton is decidedly opinionated. For instance, on such questions as why Lazaridis would give all that money to a theoretical physics institute, he states that “the real issue, in my view, lies in the other direction: why is it that the world seems so replete with colossally wealthy, unimaginative wankers who seem in abject denial of their mortality and whose overriding motivation seems to be directed towards some ego-drenched, self-indulgent drivel that will likely not give them real satisfaction anyway?”

The Perimeter Institute opened in the fall of 2001 as scheduled, with staff and scientists occupying the old post office in Waterloo while work began on a building designed to provide scientists and their post-docs with the optimal environment for thinking—blackboards everywhere, lots of light, wood-burning fireplaces, a theatre to host talks and concerts by the likes of Holly Cole and Yo-Yo Ma, and a bistro with a resident chef. But first, Lazaridis and Burton had to deal with a very Canadian confrontation with an affronted Waterloo community. Before they could build the new Perimeter Institute home, they had to demolish a collapsing old hockey arena, a building dear to the hearts of many residents. To smooth things with the community, Lazaridis anted up the funding to help finish a brand new sports multiplex after the city ran short of money. And then the old arena/new site turned out to be on top of the old city dump. Surprise!

One of the mistakes Lazaridis and Burton made was to announce the new institute with great fanfare, but without a single politician to stand in their reflected glory or take credit for making it all happen. Early on, the institute directors decided that it would be better to put the donations from Lazaridis and his colleagues into an endowment fund rather than spending it to run the place. But that meant the Perimeter Institute now needed to tap the usual government organizations for operating funds and research grants.

“Nobody wanted to be in a situation where government was dictating what we were doing and how,” said Burton, “or bogging us down in a mire of bureaucracy … Curtailing [our] flexibility for additional government funding would be a dubious victory indeed.” He quickly learned the art of lobbying, but noted that “the obvious question, ‘Why are you coming to us now?’ trailed after me everywhere I went in Ottawa, like a bad smell.”

Still, with a little finessing, Burton was able to score $5.6 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. It provides money for lab buildings and equipment, something the Perimeter Institute has no need for, but Burton got the money by creatively framing the institute building as a “laboratory” for thinking. With matching funds from the Ontario government, it garnered $11.2 million in public funding. The National Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canada’s primary source of research funding in physics, soon followed with a commitment for $5 million a year for five years. By the summer of 2002, the Perimeter Institute had nailed down five years of public funding totalling $45 million. Not surprisingly, this generated no small amount of jealousy and resentment in the mainstream physics community. The pie was not getting any bigger, and the new kid on the block had suddenly gotten its big, sticky fingers into it.

That may be part of the reason the institute had to undergo “a rigorous, third-party assessment from the international scientific community” when the institute went looking for even more money in 2006 to fund its rapid growth. But in the end, the Perimeter Institute got another five-year commitment from the feds and the Ontario government, this time for $100 million.

By 2007, Burton was able to proudly proclaim the Perimeter Institute as home to ten full-time faculty (now with tenure) and eight part-time associates. “Since we began research in 2001 we’ve attracted fifty postdocs, forty graduate students and more than 700-odd visitors. We’ve produced more than 700 scientific publications, hosted more than thirty international conferences and held more than 800 in-house seminars.”

Then, one day in June of 2007, Burton welcomed a group of researchers to the Perimeter Institute, as he usually did, seemingly proud of having helped organize the gathering. Two hours later, staff and researchers at the institute were stunned by a mass email informing them that Burton was no longer the institute director.

Despite his success with the institute and being generally sociable and well liked by the folks at the institute, it is surprising that Burton lasted as long as he did as director. He had never been a practising physicist, and there had long been a feeling about the place that a physicist should be in charge. The announcement of Burton’s departure was terse and uninformative, leaving the door wide open to speculation about what really happened. Had Burton become too possessive of “his” institute? Had there been a clash between Burton and Lazaridis? Burton’s abrupt departure fuelled suspicion that it had most likely happened on Lazaridis’s say-so, or at least with his approval.

In the book’s epilogue, Burton gives his own take on what happened. He was there, after all, and he was well into the writing of First Principles while he was still director. “Bizarre as it may seem,” said Burton, “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.”

Times have changed for the institute. It is no longer independent of government largesse or the politics of public funding. Burton’s behind-the-scenes details would not endear him to the bureaucrats and administrators he would have to deal with. In fact, just about anyone with a role in academic research will find something to relate to in First Principles, and it won’t necessarily be flattering. Burton says what lots of people think but will not say for fear of ruining their careers. It is not hard to see why the institute’s directors might have reached the conclusion that keeping him on as the “face” of the institute was no longer in its best interests. What is not clear is why Burton, with his obvious insight into the politics and personalities at the institute, should have been at all surprised at this turn of events when he had essentially staged his own Waterloo.

Burton characterizes his tenure as the institute’s first director as “a good start,” but he steers clear of the tricky question of how successful the Perimeter Institute experiment has been at changing the face of science or tackling those Big Questions. The most obvious measure of success for physicists is winning a Nobel Prize, just as Einstein did. However, a theorist cannot win a Nobel until his or her theory is experimentally verified, and the kinds of problems most of the great minds at the institute are working on today—such as string theory or quantum gravity—have no conceivable means of verification now or in the foreseeable future. Still, Lazaridis made it clear from the start that he was in for the long haul. So, for now, the most tangible measure of success for the Perimeter Institute appears to be all the Big Name talent it is attracting, and it is doing a pretty good job of that.

There is a real physicist running the Perimeter Institute now. Neil Turok, who was recruited by Lazaridis from the University of Cambridge, is a Big Name in physics. He has plans for an even bigger Perimeter Institute, with many more celebrity scientists, including, he hopes, his ailing Cambridge colleague Stephen Hawking. Turok even has a program called Next Einstein. And Lazaridis has donated another $50 million to the institute. The quest continues.

Burton now lives in Lyon, France, having left the smoking remains of burnt bridges far behind. He is an excellent storyteller, and it is fun to get a peek at the dark underbelly of high-minded research enterprises. At times, his constant use of “I” and “me” makes it seem as if he single-handedly created the Perimeter Institute, but at other times he can be quite self-deprecating. But the most entertaining aspect of this book is Burton’s sharp-tongued take on just about every group with a role in academic research. Indeed, it should be recommended reading for all of them, and for people outside academia who are curious about this “crazy business of doing serious science.”