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Blackboards and Blackberries

By Matin Durrani

Perimeter Institute director Neil Turok with one of its many blackboards

This is my first visit to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.

Physics World has been following the progress of the institute since it first began in 1999 so I knew what the ethos of it would be like – it encourages staff to work on unorthodox areas that are outside the mainstream, it strives for excellence, and it provides a supportive environment where nothing is taken for read.

There are no big shots whose views cannot be called into question and postdocs are given lots of freedom to pursue the ideas they are most interested in – to do pretty much what they want.

The founders of the institute also knew that a key factor would be the building itself. After spending its first few years in a temporary home — a former red-brick Victorian post office — the Perimeter Institute moved into a brand new building in 2004.

It was specially constructed, and is filled with lots of comfy, low sofas where people can stop and discuss weighty matters. The offices all have glass walls so that you can see if someone is in, and the corridors are deliberately narrow so that people are forced to stop and talk. (And in an amusing in-joke, there are seminar rooms known as the Alice Room and the Bob Room, named after the two people used in thought experiments on quantum cryptography.)

Free coffee is on tap. There are pool tables, stripped floorboards, lots of natural light, real log fires, and blackboards everywhere.

I’d heard about the blackboards. But what it is interesting is that they are actually used. So too are the Blackberries that all staff are given: the institute was founded by Mike Lazaridis, whose company Research in Motion makes these hand-held devices.

What was also nice to see was that the institute’s director, Neil Turok, did not see it beneath himself to make me a cup of tea before sitting down for an interview for an article I will be writing for the December issue of Physics World magazine.

I can’t imagine most lab bosses would pesonally make tea for their visitors. He even washed the cups out beforehand.

I just wish I understood what was on his blackboard.

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  1. What an impressive bunch of equations on the blackboard!
    Unfortunately, they have little or nothing to do with reality.
    That’s my opinion,
    Oliver K. Manuel

  2. Robert McNees

    Most of the equations on that blackboard refer to standard quantum field theory calculations. Quantum Field Theory is arguably the most accurate description of physical reality that has ever been devised; a far cry from having “little or nothing to do with reality.”


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