What the Perimeter Institute Can Teach Us about Creativity

Mindcamp Random

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.

beakbane_tomTom Beakbane has participated in Mindcamp every year for the last 9 years. He runs Beakbane: Brand Strategies & Communications. He is also presenting Business Chemotherapy at Mindcamp 2013.

Comments 3

  1. Tom,
    Thanks for your interesting posting on The Perimeter Institute which sounds like an amazing place to work. There’s a couple points that need further discussion however because they are not strictly true. The first is the idea that the Higgs Boson hints at a simplified model of the universe. The physics community breathed a sigh of relief with the discovery of the HB because it verified theoretical predictions that had been made decades earlier. So in that sense it provided resolution to the then incomplete ‘Standard Model’ that puts all the various particles and their relationships together in one over-arching theoretical frame-work. That’s not to say however that all the loose ends have been tied up, but it does now have a firm unifying basis to all the constituent building blocks of particle physics, at least at a certain scale. At much, much smaller scales there is string theory which has multiverse theory as one of its foundations. The discovery of the HB hasn’t discounted multiverse theory at all, and some would say it has verified it.
    The second point I would challenge is the myth of the lone scientific genius where Maxwell, Einstein and Newton were cited in your article. All of these people worked in collaboration with other scientists otherwise they wouldn’t have developed their theories. Collaboration isn’t just about meeting in a comfy space, drinking cappuccino and chatting, in fact that is pretty unproductive in terms of progressing ideas – that’s a place of speculation, not innovation. The latter takes place when you actually do something useful and that doing relies entirely on other forms of collaboration and hard work, sometimes with others sometimes alone. To develop a new theory, a scientist needs to be aware of all the current and previous thinking within their field and to have a sound understanding of it. Only then can they begin to challenge it or identify gaps in it. If they do this without a clear understanding, their theories will be ridiculed by those who have a better understanding. Imagination in science needs to be grounded in knowledge, facts and practicality and this is achieved in part through sharing. There’s no shortage however of potty ideas held by people who have got hold of half an idea and added their own speculative thoughts to it and not bothered to run it past someone else . It might be fun, but it ain’t science. Einstein collaborated constantly even during his most productive time in the early 1900’s, indeed it was he who suggested the idea that a scientist should find a fellow ‘buddy’ to discuss ideas with – someone who could challenge your cherished notions. Einstein had such a buddy in his work as a patent attorney and his first wife who was a brilliant mathematician was also a good collaborator for him.
    Newton was the president of the first and most learned collaborative scientific organisation to be established during the early days of modern science. This was The Royal Society and to this day it serves the same purpose of the development and exchange of ideas through collaboration. Newton though exhibited a rather unpalatable aspect of collaboration because of his influential position. This was through what is effectively plagiarism (eg see Leibnitz and the origins of calculus) – or at the very least – through not making due reference to the ideas of others and even ridiculing them (eg Hooke). Newton depended on the collaboration of these people in order to develop his own ideas but at the same time tried to ruin their reputation.
    Maxwell was a theoretician and without his collaboration with the experimental approach of Faraday, electromagnetism would have been delayed (scientific progress has an inevitability about it unlike the arts). Collaboration in science concerns reading and studying what others have done, attending conferences, sharing ideas to hone your own etc. Collaboration is just as important now as it was in the early days of science, but no scientist works entirely collaboratively, neither do they work entirely alone. Their time is and always was divided up between the two because all new ideas need to be verified, and in any experiment that involves a team, everyone has a role but they are alone in that role.

  2. Byron, your knowledge of the history of science puts you in an exalted minority. The points you make are indeed illuminating, fascinating – and far more correct than my facile points.

    You are right to point out that science is always more collaborative than myths of solitary thinkers coming up with flashes of genius in their basements. However, would you not concede that science is becoming MORE complex and collaborative. Maxwell and Newton communicated with a handful of other scientists and could construct experiments using wires, prisms and pieces of paper, whereas today an institution like CERN needs 4,000 employees and thousands of others to generate and process zettabytes of data. The level of collaboration at the Perimeter institute appear to me to be an order of magnitude greater to what happens at most universities.

    I am likely misreporting and/or oversimplifying Neil Turok’s views on the significance of the Higgs Boson. The point he was making was that the discovery of the particle infers that the simplicity of the standard model is correct. It is his hunch that there are other conceptually simple ideas that will explain quantum mechanics without the need to resort to string theories that have scale-dependent variables. He dreams of theories that are more like Maxwell’s that are broadly applicable to ALL electromagnetic radiation without the need to resort to arbitrary variables. The theory that there are a cascading infinity of multiverses is, he thinks, wrong. Intuitively most would agree with him. Do you not buy in to the possibility that there are some astoundingly elegant ideas that might explain quantum effects more neatly than causality in an infinity of all potentialities?

    We will miss you at Mindcamp this year!

  3. Tom,
    I agree that more and larger teams are required to progress science, and a good example of this is the OPERA experiment that published results a couple of years ago about neutrinos travelling faster than light. The peer reviewed publication describing this work had about 160 authors from over 35 different research institutes all working collaboratively. I think we need to delve deeper into what we mean by collaboration because you can get very little real work done by merely talking to other people which is how collaboration is often described. You have to know your role and do your bit which is a solitary activity sandwiched between collaboration before and after. When I was in research I co-authored a paper with about 20 other researchers on the testing of the first undersea optical cable which was submerged in Loch Fyne in Scotland. I was solely responsible for measuring how much data you could send down the 10km long cable. Of the other 20 authors I only ever spoke to about 3 of them about what they were doing, and we never met once as a single group. Was that collaboration?

    Sadly in the case of the collaborative OPERA experiment it turned out to be a false result and a lot of other potential authors declined to add their name for their contribution because they suspected the results were flawed. I’m not sure what this says about collaboration but it throws up some issues!

    So yes we do need to collaborate more to do big science but there are limits to what can actually be done collaboratively.

    At the cutting edge however are individuals collaborating in a much less diverse way rather like Einstein and Maxwell. The further up the tree you go the fewer people there are working on the same problem and the more tenuous the collaboration. The reason that there were so many people involved in the OPERA work is that it was an experiment and a great number of those involved were responsible for the complex measurement diagnostics. Similarly when we observed the Apollo missions in the last century which in itself was an engineering experiment there were dozens of people sitting at screens each doing their own separate bit but all involved in a collaborative venture.

    If you go back in time to the construction of the Cathedrals in Europe, they were as complex to build as it was to land men on the moon, and these constructions involved hundreds of people with different skills all collaborating in the same way. So I don’t think there is much difference certainly in terms of research at the frontier.

    Re Multi-verses this idea emerged way before string theory and it is an interpretation of both Quantum Mechanics and astro-physics as well. See for example: http://www.space.com/18811-multiple-universes-5-theories.html

    The HB discovery hasn’t dispatched any of those theories. In my view there’s nothing elegant about Quantum theory because it is beyond our conceptual grasp to understand (largely because we inhabit a non-quantised world in the realm of our senses from which we acquire meaning) but it can be modelled extremely well mathematically. Even classical physics is not pretty when you try to model and predict the movement of more than two masses eg the sun, the earth and the moon (see the three body problem) The chemistry of life is the biggest complex inelegant mess there is in science, which is why there are so few general principles let alone laws (unlike in physics)to describe it.

    It would be good to chew this over the campfire at MC but other things are taking precedence at the mo.

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