Answering the Quantum Quest - Canada's Perimeter Institute


A century after Einstein's breakthroughs, his legacy has a firm foothold in Canada, judging by the attention Canada's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) is gaining from the international scientific community. Since its launch more than 3 years ago, the independent research facility is fast becoming one of the world's top centers for quantum theory and is attracting some of the world's best minds.

With an international reputation, plenty of funding, and a stimulating environment, the Waterloo, Ontario-based institute is a magnet for young, aspiring talent and for world leaders in the field. All of them are looking for answers to foundational questions in theoretical physics, tackling everything from cosmology to superstring theory. "There is not one scientist at Perimeter Institute whose current research and academic lineage cannot be traced back to Einstein's fantastic year in 1905," says Howard Burton (pictured above), Executive Director of PI.

Back to the Roots

Perimeter Institute was officially launched in September 2000, the brainchild of Mike Lazardis, CEO of Research in Motion (RIM) and inventor of the Blackberry wireless communication device. The institute was funded initially with $100 million of Lazardis' own money, along with $20 million from two of his colleagues. Later on, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, NSERC, and the Ontario provincial government kicked in another $55 million. This allowed the institute to move into a brand-new, state-of-the-art building with office space for 80 researchers, auditoriums, and even squash courts.

To Burton, the success of the centre is linked to government support and internationally recognized scientists who helped flesh out the focus and mission of the institute in the earliest stages of its development. "I think [these factors have] gone a long way towards establishing the institute on the international stage," he adds.

Making inroads

A changing international context also made it possible for the centre to grow to its current strength, with great potential for the future. "If I was an aspiring young theorist, I would think this bodes well for a very good future," says Burton. While the United States has dominated the physics landscape because of its combination of well-endowed universities and aggressive recruitment, things may have changed since 9/11. Some researchers, Burton believes, have been disenchanted with the U.S., given recent prohibitive U.S. immigration policies, which has provided Canada some real opportunities.

People having second thoughts about the U.S. are taking a look at what Canada has to offer. "Tides have started to turn, and people are saying, 'I can be in a multicultural, ethnically tolerant environment, in a country not prohibitively restricted with immigration policies, which welcomes me,' " says Burton. "And most of all there are fantastic opportunities [for] science and interaction that [are] good for my career."

If Canada is to continue this momentum, though, it will need consistent and aggressive support from the federal government. Burton thinks that the Liberal party has made progress over the past decade in establishing Canada as a "desirable center of science and research of all stripes." With the new government in place, however, Burton perceives some ambiguity about the future direction of Canadian science. "Nobody is quite certain if this government is as determined to move forward with [scientific] initiatives as its predecessor was." The scientific community is looking for a reaffirmation of support of existing infrastructures, such as the Canada Research Chairs, Canadian Foundation of Innovation, and other granting councils, notes Burton.

Open canvas

Burton's responsibilities include not only administrative and financial management but also searching the globe for talented theorists to invite. He is always on the lookout for theorists who specialize in the institute's three main fields of interest ? loop quantum gravity, string theory, and quantum information theory. The current roster of in-house faculty has been assembled from Spain, England, the United States, and Mexico, among other nations. PI currently houses 40 resident scientists, including 9 long-term researchers and 21 postdocs, and expects to host around 300 visiting scholars this year alone. In 2004 PI hired 4 researchers, 8 postdocs and 3 long term visitors. Hirings numbers are dependant on taking advantage of targets of opportunity, that is, when quality players are on the market and can readily be picked up. On average PI researchers collectively publish well over 100 papers per academic year.

So what does it take to get into PI? Burton and his committee look for individuals who meet the criteria that all high-level international institutions are scouting for: a promising or established international research career and track record. He adds, "You need to be a creative and dynamic thinker, clearly somebody who can be independent, somebody who can be successful in the very competitive world of international theoretical physics research."

Part of what attracts people from around the world is a rare opportunity to do independent, autonomous research in a stimulating environment. Year-round conferences, workshops, and the society of world-renowned physicists offer a chance for residents to interact and keep up with the latest discoveries and debates in a wide variety of associated fields. PI's community of scholars strives to maintain an optimal mix of youth and experience. But because the institute recognizes that, historically, many great discoveries come from young researchers, there is a definite youth-orientation to recruiting. Even the more senior resident researchers are, as Burton describes, full of the excitement, dynamism, and energy with which younger members of the community really connect.

"We try very hard to have a culture here that is progressive and exciting, but at the same time is scientifically rigorous and provides an opportunity for a younger person to paint on an open canvas," adds Burton. To him the last independent institution for basic physics to be given such an amount of money and attention was the Industry for Advanced Study, which was founded in the late 1920´s. "PI is a breath of fresh air, both practically, in terms of possibilities, but also symbolically for the next generation researchers."

Next generation

Another attractive feature of PI is the high degree of freedom given to all researchers. Particularly noteworthy is the role that postdocs are given within the institute. Postdocs have seats on policy committees, which they say make them feel valued and respected. Florian Girelli, a French postdoc who has been at PI for the last couple of years, enjoys this opportunity to learn how administrative processes work. Postdocs play a significant role in everything from hiring and inviting foreign scientists to PI's general policies. "Having a vote and being involved in the decision making processes, I feel like I am part of a community and taking part in the life of this institute," says Girelli.

Girelli's theoretical research on quantum gravity involves interactions and collaboration with researchers in other areas at PI. For Girelli, like most theorists, the freedom to exchange ideas is vital. PI offers both large, quiet offices with lake-side views and a number of inviting common areas filled with wall-to-wall blackboards and coffee-machines, ready for impromptu brainstorming.

Girelli knows that young physicists have many stresses, from dealing with theoretical problems that may not yield solutions readily to finding long-term, stable employment. It can be difficult and frustrating to always try and push the limits of knowledge. But PI allows him to explore possibilities and face challenges with confidence. "With such an open atmosphere, I have the freedom to pursue my own research ideas on my own terms, and this I find is very liberating for me."

While the challenges in this field are many, the rewards are really quite simple, Burton points out. "It comes down to being able to spend time doing something that you love, and that you find fantastically interesting, engaging, and stimulating," he says. "Few of us ever have the opportunity to do that."

For more information on the Perimeter Institute and their work, check out their Web site.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at

All images are provided courtesy of Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers