by Tom Beakbane
You might not know it, not far from Toronto in Waterloo is a group of exceedingly creative people who are on track to make discoveries that will transform the world. It is the Perimeter Institute, led by the theoretical physicist Neil Turok.
Relaxed, sitting in a comfortable chair Neil chatted about how the Institute works and its significance. His team deals with concepts that are pushing the bounds of human thinking to the limits of what can be imagined. They look to the outer fringes of the universe where the material is so old it is obscured by the fire of the big bang that happened 14 billion years ago. And at the other extreme they deal with astonishingly small scales where quantum effects are stranger than anything a magician could conceive.
The science that is done at the Perimeter Institute is a world apart from what everyone else does and yet the practices that make them great are applicable to everyone interested in developing new ideas.
Here are five principles:
1. Have a mind-exploding vision
The Institute doesn’t have modest goals. Its thinkers want to solve the crisis in the field of physics. The discovery of the Higgs boson hints that the universe might be a lot simpler than many theorists thought disproving their ideas of a “multiverse”. When the mathematical principles are found they will clear the way to understanding what happened before our universe came into existence and why the big bang happened.
“We are at the start of a new quantum age”, Neil explained. “Add are about to graduate from the digital age with its insistence that the world can be described with zeroes and ones… which is a small-minded concept.” A quantum world is one where impossible numbers become real, such as the square root of minus one, a number that is at once both essential in quantum mathematics and impossible. Sound crazy? Already quantum computers are on the drawing board that will deliver power so incredible they will makes desktop computers look as crude as the abacus.
2. Communicate simply, clearly and without jargon
Neil chatted about the Institute and the transformative power of physics for over an hour without notes or slides. He described concepts that were on the leading edge of science and yet he used virtually no jargon, supporting his points with metaphors and short anecdotes. Responding to a question posed an 8 year old girl about what will happen to the expanding universe, he answered without needing to change tone. She along with everyone else in the room understood his answer. (Which was in brief, there are three possible scenarios; the universe will cool to nothingness or blow up in one of two different ways. At this point scientists are not sure which will occur).
3. Innovation requires teamwork
Newton, Einstein and Maxwell developed their theories essentially alone. “Discovery is no longer a solitary affair”, Neil explained. It is now so complex it requires a team of specialists with different areas of expertise to work together.
In the same way, in business, wherever there is innovation: in new product development, in improved quality, in safer work environments, in more efficient systems or more effective marketing, progress can only be made when there is teamwork.
4. Cooperate without groups
Academia is notable for its competing fiefdoms that rarely communicate with each other. Why should historians, musicians, linguists and scientists help each other? That is not the approach at the Perimeter Institute. Neil states, “There are no groups here.”
The building has glass walls and common areas that make interaction unavoidable. The best day for him is, “When a discussion starts as I get my early morning coffee and continues until the end of the day and I never reach my office.”
5. Rebel against the established
As a professor at Cambridge University Neil found it almost impossible to change the content of the physics courses he taught. When Michael Lazaridis, the co-founder of RIM, met with Neil and described the vision of the Perimeter Institute where collaboration would advance human knowledge, Neil grasped the opportunity to escape academia’s constraints.
Over the last 20 years physicists have developed ideas that involve extraordinarily complex mathematics, with numerous arbitrary variables where the logic calls for an infinity of parallel multiverses. These ideas have become the prevailing dogma. Neil and his team believe there is something better, something simpler and more elegant.
To be innovative in all fields one has to start with the presumption that what exists can be bettered. One needs to be dissatisfied with the status quo and quietly confident that one can do better. Mindcampers are familiar with that feeling, right?
Will Neil and his team come up with ideas that will change the world?
I’ll bet they will.