World-renowned mathematician and physicist Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute for TheoreticalPhysics in Waterloo, Ont., discusses Canada’ s place in the emerging quantum age and the need for scientists to aspire to greatness.

In October 2004 the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics opened its doors in Waterloo, Ont. When Research in Motion (now Blackberry) co-founder Mike Lazaridis announced the creation of the institute four years earlier, the global physics community had reacted with bemusement at the idea that people in a backwater city were going up against physics powerhouses such as Harvard, Cambridge and Max Planck Institutes.

A mere 10 years after that opening, Perimeter is ranked second worldwide in theoretical physics (to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies.) And, for the third consecutive year, young researchers there have garnered coveted $100,000 New Horizons in Physics awards. The institute, once consisting of a half dozen researchers upstairs in a former restaurantbar, now has 150 researchers and trainees in two buildings encompassing 11,148 square metres.

Perimeter’s director is South African-born cosmologist Neil Turok, 56, who came to Waterloo in 2008 from Cambridge University where he was chair of Mathematical Physics in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, a high-prestige post.Turok’s public profile in Canada was heightened in 2012 when he delivered the CBC’s Massey Lectures to capacity crowds across the country.

A central theme of The Universe Within – From Quantum to Cosmos lectures and book is that recent discoveries in physics at the very largest scale (cosmology) and the very smallest (fundamental particles) will be game-changing for society. A “slow-burn” quantum revolution will eventually supplant our current digital age, says Turok, who spoke to the Canadian Chemical News this past November.

Is it important for Canada to be a player in this game?

You can’t overstate that. Canada was left out of that tremendous wealth creation and industrial growth that followed the invention of the transistor and the microprocessor.

But do countries actually have to spend a lot of money to take advantage of such advances? Don’t you get the benefits when other people do it?

I think the world is much too competitive to allow that. Canada is so blessed with natural resources that that’s always a temptation — let’s just rely on wood, water, uranium or the tar sands. And you’ve seen with the tar sands how dangerous that strategy is. Somebody discovers fracking and the next thing you know the market is unreliable. The one reliable way for a society to progress is by investing in education and knowledge and discovery.

Perimeter came from the private sector. There wasn’t a public policy decision behind its creation.

Well, there was. One of Canada’s huge strengths is that it is a small country in terms of the number of people and it retains a willingness to pioneer things. I think that’s something in the culture in Canada. Perhaps it’s not as aggressive or entrepreneurial as the culture in the United States but nevertheless there is this openness. And when Mike Lazaridis decided to put $100 million of his own money into a physics institute, the province of Ontario and the federal government joined in. And in so doing they created a totally unique model because that had never happened before on that scale. Today there is a genuine public-private partnership focused on the purest of science.

Should we be looking to universities to make these sorts of innovative approaches? I doubt it. I think the university is the greatest invention ever made and universities are essential for education and providing access to knowledge for the whole of society. But universities are also among the slowest moving institutions in the modern world.

But without using Perimeter as a cookie cutter, couldn’t we develop world-ranking institutes for other areas of science such as synthetic chemistry or fundamental biology?

It would be much harder. All theoretical physics needs is a blackboard and computers so it’s always the fastest moving of sciences; the most adaptable. Are there lessons to be learned? Absolutely. From very simple things like the Black Hole Bistro at Perimeter, which is the best dining facility I know of in physics. The basis of it is that if you want people to work at 100 percent and to be inspired about their work you need to provide them with an environment that is correspondingly great. University environments are often very slummy and people don’t pay enough attention to creating an inspirational environment in which people will really knock themselves out.

Are there other lessons?

I think Canada often doesn’t appreciate how attractive a country it is for people to move to, especially today with all the instability in the world and the anxiety and the political shenanigans. There’s no reason why Canadian scientific institutes should not be the best in the world. There have been a lot of good programs in Canada, like the 2,000 Canada Research Chairs. But I think the aspirations are still not high enough. All too often the people appointed are those who were in posts anywhere or recruited from somewhere else in Canada. And often they are not the very best in the world. Perimeter has shown that it is perfectly possible to bring the best in the world here. I hope our example will encourage other people to aspire somewhat higher.

Governments in Canada are espousing a shift in their research grants from curiosity-oriented work to more industrially applied work.

There’s a trend around the world for government to try to push science closer to companies and products and I think that is fundamentally misguided. I think the scientists and the academics should respond to this positively by saying, “we can offer you much more impact if you fund the pure science.” There is a basis to society’s frustration with scientists and researchers — and the frustration of politicians — which is that very often scientists just want more. They want more grants, they want more freedom, they want to be funded and they don’t want to be accountable for that funding. Well, you’ve got to do more than that. You’ve got to, first, go after breakthroughs. It’s not enough to keep publishing papers, going to conferences, doing the usual thing. You’ve got to aim high to be worthy of society’s support. Secondly, I think scientists have been rather poor at explaining what they do to the public. To be funded to do research is a huge privilege and what should come along with that is the responsibility that you explain to the public what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and why it may pay off for society.