|During a presentation on big-bang physics, cosmologist Neil Turok stands in front
of a slide showing Raphael's painting of ancient thinkers, "The School of Athens."
A theoretical physics institute must be a bit like a science-fiction starship, in that you actually have to take concepts like extradimensional wormholes and inflationary multiverses seriously. If that's the case, then give a "Star Trek" salute to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics' new captain: cosmologist Neil Turok.
The Canadian public-private research institute, founded with $100 million from BlackBerry billionaire Mike Lazaridis, announced Turok's appointment as executive director today after a nearly yearlong search. Turok will take the helm at Perimeter on Oct. 1.
Turok, who was born in 1958 in South Africa and earned his Ph.D. at Britain's Imperial College, became well-known as famed physicist Stephen Hawking's collaborator on a theoretical exploration of cosmic inflation. In today's announcement from Perimeter, Hawking wished Godspeed to his old No. 1:
"He has been a colleague of mine for a number of years, and I have been very impressed by his insight and originality. The combination of Neil and PI is brilliant and holds great promise for the future."
As the director of Cambridge University's Center for Theoretical Cosmology, Turok has been working with Princeton cosmologist Barry Steinhardt on a theory suggesting that the universe follows a cyclic path of development - with one extradimensional big bang setting the stage for the next.
Last year they collaborated on a book about the theory titled "Endless Universe," and Turok happened to stop by the Perimeter Institute this March to give a lecture tied to the book's theme. (You can watch the whole lecture online.) At the time, Turok joked that some of his colleagues thought Perimeter's location in Waterloo, Ontario, was "the middle of nowhere."
I asked him about that during a quick interview this morning: What does he tell people who think he's leaving the hallowed halls of Cambridge for the middle of nowhere?
"Well, to be perfectly honest, I am so committed to theoretical physics that I would happily do it on the moon," he told me. "The geographical location isn't key to me."
But he also emphasized that he always knew Waterloo wasn't a one-horse town - and in fact was at the heart of a region that aspires to become a "Silicon Valley in Canada."
"It should, and hopefully will, become a truly international center, meaning that people all over the world will come here," Turok said.
Lazaridis also spoke up for Waterloo - pointing out that the city of nearly 100,000 is the home base of the company he founded, Research in Motion, but also for the widely respected University of Waterloo (where he serves as chancellor). "We have the largest math faculty in the world," Lazaridis noted.
During the interview, Turok and Lazaridis discussed what's ahead for the Perimeter Institute and physics in general. Here's an edited selection of questions and answers:
Cosmic Log: The Perimeter Institute has been known as the loyal opposition to string theory, mostly because of the work of Lee Smolin, Fotini Markopoulou-Kalamara and other people have done on loop quantum gravity. Where do you see that direction going? This might be an opportunity to talk about the general direction in which you would want to take the institute.
Turok: Since its founding, what distinguished the Perimeter Institute is actually its open-minded attitudes, and there's a highly respected string-theory group at PI which is actually larger than the loop quantum gravity group. Perhaps it gets less attention because loop quantum gravity is not pursued so much elsewhere.
I don't think Perimeter is about taking a particular approach and pursuing it to the exclusion of others. Rather, PI is a place characterized by open-mindedness, critical thinking. When a new theory or approach is developed, I believe people should be ruthlessly critical of the mathematics behind it, and also the connection to the real world.
In my opinion, string theory is the most promising avenue we have for the unification of gravity and the fundamental forces. But that doesn't mean I'm not critical of it. I think sometimes people do exaggerate its achievements thus far. We need to keep an open mind.
Q: You've been working with Paul Steinhardt on the idea of the ekpyrotic universe, or the cyclic universe. Is this something that you will keep pursuing in your own research as you take on the directorship?
Turok: Yes, I'm certainly continuing to pursue it, and we've made some wonderful progress recently connecting it to holography - which I'm very excited about. But the task of the director at Perimeter is merely to help create an environment in which brilliant young people make original discoveries. So the way in which that happens in theoretical physics is not so much through a director having a particular scientific agenda.
What the director has to do, and what the other senior faculty have to do, is create an atmosphere in which excellence becomes the norm. ... And then you basically provide the freedom for people to follow their own instincts and their own ideas. So that's the kind of atmosphere we want. It's not an atmosphere where one school dominates over the others.
In fact, I think that's one of the very healthy features of PI, that many different directions are pursued. And then there's a free competition between the directions, and the best one wins. That's how healthy science is done.
Q: What do you see as the upcoming strands of experimental physics that might feed into the theoretical side of the equation here. I know that there's been a lot of talk about what the Large Hadron Collider might bring.
Turok: Well, the LHC is the obvious one, and there's a very large community around the world trying to model LHC results and anticipate what it might find. That's extremely exciting, but it's not something which Perimeter is uniquely placed to pursue. Where I see Perimeter having an advantage over other places is in pursuing fundamental theoretical physics, in areas like gravity and quantum theory and how to unify the two.
A lot of that work is mathematical at this stage, and we may not have the means to experimentally test it - but of course one should keep looking for that. The LHC might discover several new particles, or the Higgs particle, but that information by itself will not solve the problem of quantum gravity. I think in a way focusing on the LHC is letting ourselves off the hook a little too lightly. We've got to deal with the really tough problems. And the way we'll get information on those, ultimately, is through observations of the universe - in particular gravitational waves. That's on the horizon now. We expect to see gravitational waves detected within five years, from black holes, and then 10 or 15 years down the road we may see them emerging from the early universe.
So there is no fundamental barrier to using gravitational waves as a probe of the big-bang singularity, which will be the ultimate test of quantum gravity. I think PI takes a long-term view. Mike Lazaridis has said this on many occasions, that the agenda is to make the discoveries which will have an impact on ideas down the line. That should characterize the research. It should be excellent mathematically, should relate to nature and the real world - but we're not looking for results tomorrow.
We're in this for the long run, and we have to live up to the kind of achievements that Einstein and Bohr and Born and these people made in the early part of the 20th century. ...
Q: Mike, I'm sure you get asked this question all the time: Here you are, involved with BlackBerry, which is a very practical device. And you're also involved with the Perimeter Institute - which, as Neil was saying, is a very long-term enterprise. It doesn't appear to have any application to making a better BlackBerry. What would your answer be to that perennial issue [of applied vs. basic research]?
Lazaridis: First of all, what I do for Research in Motion, the company that I founded and continue to lead, is different from my personal pursuits. Perimeter was founded with $100 million of personal investment from my personal holdings. So they are different in the sense that my work for Research in Motion is to further the success of BlackBerry and products like BlackBerry.
The inspiration for Perimeter, of course, came from the understanding and appreciation of the importance of physics to the industry I'm involved in. Without the basic discoveries of quantum mechanics and special relativity, we would not be in the technological revolution and information age that we enjoy today. Semiconductors, lasers, fiber optics, the heart of the Internet today, the heart of the knowledge economy today would not be possible without these fundamental discoveries.
What's interesting for me is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The enormous success, innovation and progress that came out of those fundamental discoveries when they were commercialized by industry have dramatically influenced the world we live in today. ... I'm not a physicist, but I do understand that there is a tremendous number of unsolved questions, unsolved mysteries that require solutions. There are still forces that have to be unified. That work will continue.
One of the results of physics being so successful, and its ability to work with such incredibly complex problems and concepts, is that it is very difficult for society to relate to it sometimes. It's very, very important that we continue to understand its importance, and that we fund it. We have to make sure that we are funding this relatively small community of highly talented men and women who are dedicating their lives to solving what appear to be incredibly complex problems. They could hold the keys to helping society solve our challenges going forward. ...
The important thing here is to realize this is a major coup for theoretical physics. Theoretical physics is an international endeavor that benefits all countries. This is one area that holds incredible promise, should it be able to answer some of the pressing questions in cosmology and force unification.
Turok: I just want to say that Perimeter is an extraordinary experiment, and that's the way it should be looked at. It's an opportunity for theoretical physics the like of which has not been seen before: Can you actually stimulate major breakthroughs by bringing brilliant people from around the world together in a relatively flexible, free environment? I think that's a wonderful experiment, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what the outcome is. None of us really knows. It's not something you can predict. But that's what exciting about it.
Q: So even though you're a theoretician, you're now becoming something of an experimentalist, too.
Turok: Absolutely. That's what makes it fun. We can't anticipate the discoveries we're going to make.
Update for 9:30 p.m. ET: Let's take the "Star Trek" connection a little further: Turok is the name of a video-game character of course, but Tuvok (with a "v") was the Vulcan security officer on "Star Trek: Voyager." Neil Turok's old captain, Stephen Hawking, played himself (supposedly holographically) on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Don't be surprised if Turok himself shows up on the Web with some Spock ears, like the ones occasionally hung on NASA Administrator Mike Griffin by NASA Watch.