Category Archives: Perimeter Institute 10th anniversary

More than just wonderland

By Matin Durrani

A reconstruction of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover at the Quantum to Cosmos festival

I’ve been here at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics for four days now and I felt it was time I should visit the special “tent” containing hands-on displays and exhibits for the public as part of the Quantum to Cosmos festival .

First up inside is a full-scale model of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, which is due to take off in autumn 2011 and land on the red planet in summer 2012.

Round the corner were exhibits explaining quantum computing, superconductivity, polarization and more.

In the centre of the tent, meanwhile, was a 3D movie containing simulations of galaxy collisions, black-hole mergers and the early universe, with a voice-over from Stephen Hawking.

A still of the Alice and Bob videos, which one-minute cartoons about quantum mechanics, featuring two characters called Alice and Bob.

All good stuff – but the question is whether such events will persuade young people to study physics.

Many pupils, and most importantly their parents, decide what to study based on the career opportunities that their chosen field will provide. Somehow we need to show pupils that physics isn’t kids’ stuff – but a decent career move too.

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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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The art of guestimation

By Matin Durrani

Enrico Fermi was a real lover of back-of-the-envelope “guestimation” calculations and was fond of posing them to his would-be PhD students.

The Quantum to Cosmos festival is on now in Waterloo, Canada

He famously asked how many piano tuners there are in Chicago and in July 1945 calculated the strength of the first atomic-bomb test blast by dropping pieces of paper before, during and after the explosion.

It is that ability of physicists to make rough “ball-park” estimates, off the cuff, of various quantities that inspired today’s “Art of Guestimation” event at the Quantum to Cosmos festival in Waterloo, Canada.

Holed up in the Princess Twin cinema were three young physicists – Sarah Croke and Robin Blume-Kohout from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and Robert McNees from Loyola University in Chicago — who were given 10 minutes to answer various “Fermi questions” put to them by the audience before the gong went.

We had time for five questions, which are listed below, along with the panel’s answers. As with all these things, there are no right or wrong solutions. The point of the session was to show the logical way that physicists think when they want approximate solutions.

How much memory would an individual person need to store everything they could see in a lifetime? About 1 exobyte – on the assumption that the eye works like a movie film, storing visual information at about 30 frames a second, with each frame being stored in high definition (1920 x 1080 pixels) and with each pixel needing 32 bits to store colour. (The panel ignored what happens when you sleep, which would only open another can of worms.)

How many humans have ever lived since Homo Sapiens first walked on the planet? This question has been asked before – it’s about a hundred billion. Very roughly speaking, there as many people alive now as have ever lived.

How many “eh”’s would a typical Canadian say in a lifetime? (Bit of a silly one this – the “joke” is that Canadians say “eh” a lot.) The panel’s answer was seven million, assuming Canadians talk for three hours a day, that each sentence lasts five seconds and one in 10 sentences include the word “eh”. Eh?

How many Loonies are there in circulation? (No, we’re not talking mad people, but Canadian one-dollar coins.) This got the panel really stuck – their final answer was between two and four hundred million before the gong went.

How much salt is there in the Atlantic Ocean? The critical point was knowing how much salt there is in a litre of sea water. Just multiply that number by the volume of the ocean to give, ooh, about 10 to the power 19 kg.

The session was a lot of fun. Although I am not sure if this kind of event has ever been done before, I reckon it could be a winner at other science festivals too. It certainly got the audience involved, which has to be a good thing.

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Questions, questions, questions

By Matin Durrani

What big question in physics keeps you awake at night?

That was the poser for a nine-strong panel of top physicists taking part in yesterday’s inaugural event of the Quantum to Cosmos 10th anniversary festival here at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.

Sitting in a row of directors’ chairs on the main stage in the institute’s auditorium, the panel gave a range of answers related to pretty fundamental physics — not surprising given their interests and those of the institute itself,

In a nutshell, here are their answers – and apologies in advance if I have glossed over any subtleties. The panel session was only meant to be a bit of fun, after all.

Sean Carroll, Caltech
Why are the laws of physics the way they are?

Katherine Freese, University of Michigan
What is the universe made of?

Leo Kadanoff, University of Chicago
How does complexity develop in the universe?

Lawrence Krauss, Arizona State University
Have we come to the limits of our knowledge?

David Tong, Cambridge University
How will we ever know if string theory is correct?

Neil Turok, Director, Perimeter Institute
What happened at the singularity of the Big Bang?

Andrew White, University of Queensland
What is life?

Anton Zeilinger, University of Vienna
How far are we along the road of scientific discovery?

As for the ninth member of the panel — Gino Segrè from the University of Pennslyvania — I wasn’t quite sure what his answer was. I quizzed him afterwards in the Perimeter Institute’s candle-lit “Black Hole Bistro”, where the panel and special guests, myself included, were fed by the institute’s catering staff with plates of crab cakes and bite-sized pizza slices.

I think Gino was most concerned about the world not having enough young physicists to answer all those big questions that keep the rest of the panel awake

Gino recently reviewed for Physics World a book on how Wolfgang Pauli’s dreams were analyzed by Carl Jung. That got me thinking — what would be really interesting would be to analyze the panel’s dreams after thinking all those big questions.

I just hope they’re not having nightmares.

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Inside the Perimeter

By Matin Durrani

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, which kicks off its 10th anniversary festival today

“Make sure you don’t blow the world up!”

That was the parting shot from one of my fellow passengers as the minibus we were sharing from Toronto airport dropped him off outside his house here in Waterloo, Canada.

It took me a while to realise what the guy was on about. You see, I had mentioned to him that I was travelling to Waterloo to attend the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

In passing, I had also talked about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and it was only later that I twigged what he meant: he had obviously assumed that the only thing physicists are hell bent on doing is making potentially life-threatening black holes.

All of which underlines the importance of Perimeter Institute’s 10-year bash, which focuses on explaining to the public what the institute and its physicists are trying to do.

The festival, entitled From Quantum to Cosmos, contains a string of exciting public events, ranging from panel debates and exhibitions to film screenings and a science-fiction workshop.

The first event takes place tonight, featuring an all-star list of physicists including Lawrence Krauss, Anton Zeilinger and Sean Carroll who will discuss the small matter of “what lies ahead in physics”. It will be streamed live on the web from the festival website

The Perimeter Institute, in case you weren’t aware, was set up in 1999 by Mike Lazaridis – the man who founded the company that makes Blackberry handheld phones.

The institute focuses on basic topics like particle physics, string theory and cosmology as well as quantum information, quantum gravity and the fundamentals of quantum mechanics.

I’m here for the next few days so I’ll keep you posted on life inside the Perimeter. One thing’s for sure: there’s no-one here planning to blow up the world. I just hope that guy on the minibus is here to find out what they really do.

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