An old way to fund new physics

When I saw the headline "Crisis Mounts at BlackBerry Maker" in last Friday's Wall Street Journal, my first reaction was, Oh no! What about the Perimeter Institute?

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, to give the independent research center its full name, was founded in 1999 and is located in Waterloo, Ontario. Funds to establish the new institute came from Mike Lazaridis, who founded and runs Research in Motion. RIM's main product is the BlackBerry smartphone—hence my alarm at the WSJ headline.


But I wasn't sure that the reaction was justified. Seeking clarification, I emailed John Matlock, the institute's director of external relations and public affairs. Matlock promptly replied with the reassuring news that the Perimeter Institute has a mix of funding sources, including the provincial government of Ontario, which recently renewed investment of $50m, and the national government of Canada, which pledged the same amount. Last year the BMO Financial Group donated $4 million.

The Perimeter Institute's recent foundation, the source of its seed money in high-tech, and the architecture of its buildings give the impression of a 21st century enterprise. Its scholars conduct research in topics at the forefront of theoretical physics, including topological insulators, gravitational waves, and quantum information.

Despite the topics' manifest modernity, we should keep in mind that research in physics always entails pushing at the frontiers of ignorance. Topics that seem hot now can cool off. String theory, for example, underwent two revolutionary bursts: in 1984–86 and 1994–2000. Whether it's now waxing, waning, or coasting is unclear.

What's more, rich benefactors have funded research for centuries. In 1704 Thomas Plume, the archdeacon of Rochester, donated funds to his alma mater, the University of Cambridge, for the purpose—in his words—of erecting "an Observatory and to maintain a studious and learned Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy, and to buy him and his successors utensils and instruments quadrants telescopes etc."

Three years ago Stephen Hawking took up a visiting professorship at the Perimeter Institute. From 1979 until 2009 he was the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge. The chair was founded in 1663 at the bequest of Henry Lucas, another rich benefactor.

So in this season of giving, let’s toast Lucas, Plume, Lazaridis, and their fellow physics funders, past, present, and—I hope—future

 «physics today»

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