Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Howard Burton: First Principles

Last weekend, I read Howard Burton's just published book "First Principles: The Crazy Business of Doing Serious Science". Howard Burton was the founding executive director of Perimeter Institute. He left in May 2007 under somewhat mysterious circumstances, according to the press release to "seek new challenges". He was replaced after a period of general confusion by our 'Interim Director' Robert Myers. Last year in May, the search for a new director was completed. As you know, Neil Turok is now director of Perimeter Institute

The book tells the story of the first years of Perimeter Institute. From Mike Lazaridis' donation, over the search for a name, for a mission, for a location, the joy of building constructions, the hiring of the first faculty members, the establishment of PI's public outreach program, and the successful acquisition of governmental funding, to Howard's departure.

It is very entertainingly written and quite informative in addition, though I admittedly had hoped for more gossip stories about the research and the researchers. The chapter about who talked to whom when and where to pull the strings for governmental support is somewhat lengthy and tiresome, but provides interesting inside views. The book also has an amusing chapter titled "The Trouble with Physicists" about the difficulties in saving scientists from administrating themselves into dysfunctionality. I'm very tempted to quote the funniest paragraphs, but I think you should read the book yourself. It comes with some characterizations of well-known physicists that are quite to the point indeed.

The book is probably more interesting if you know some of the people involved, but besides this it conveys authentically and passionately the fascination, joy and importance of theoretical physics. Overall recommendable. If this was an Amazon review, I'd give 5 stars.

Speaking of Amazon, their website just informed me that customers who bought related items also bought "Lethal Legacy: A Novel by Linda Fairstein."

PS: I messed up my order and accidentally bought two copies.  You can have the second one for $10 + postage, US/Canada only, send email to sabine[at]perimeterinstitute.ca, it's a brand new copy.
PPS: The book is gone.

36 comments:

  1. If nobody nearby will buy it (to save the trouble of posting) then I will.

    -Arun

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  2. Google understands the Profoundly Gifted. Thresh for grain, supply a cubicle; supply basic sustenance, insufficient goals, and wait. The brain is intolerant of vacuum. Deafened frequency response begets tinnitus. Amputation becomes a phantom limb. Bore the Gifted and... they create.

    Perimeter's insufficiency is keeping its people busy. Let them be lost in their own darkness if you want some of them to see the light.

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  3. Hi Bee,

    I am very aware of Howard Burton and his connection with PI since I’ve been following (as you know) its development since almost its beginnings. I actually spoke to Burton briefly once and found him very outgoing, approachable and genuine. Like you said his departure was surrounded with an element of mystery which you didn’t say was clarified more in the book and if so that by itself would be reason enough to read it.

    One thing I can tell you is that the focus of outreach since his departure has changed. With Burton it was more to humanize scientists and with it their science, to have this appear like a more normal endeavour that could be looked at and appreciated by most if not all. Since his departure public outreach has far less of this, to the point that all is retreating back to the walls of those ivory towers from which I think Burton’s focus and intent was that they should be breached. I think the new focus is more to do with how those that occupy the ivory towers perceive PI, rather then bringing more to those outside its walls. Just my own impression of course.

    Best,

    Phil

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  4. Howard was fired, no mystery here ! The only mystery is why ...

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  5. He was not fired. That indeed wouldn't have been much of a mystery.

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  6. He wasn't fired officially, nobody is never fired officially, but Mike Lazaridis accepted his resignation, that's the nice way to say he was fired.

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  7. Why don't you go and read the book instead of spreading misinformation.

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  8. Sorry, I didn't mean to upset you.

    I was just reporting what a good friend of mine (who was working at PI when it happened, and still is) told me. It didn't seem like a secret, but based on your reaction I'm not so sure anymore ...

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  9. You didn't upset me. It's what a lot of postdocs at this time thought. Naturally, it's the first conclusion they'd draw. Took quite some time to clear up the confusion.

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  10. This is the guy who is responsible for turning PI into a fortress of LQG? A look at the faculty of the quantum gravity sector will convince anybody. Not that this is bad of course; I was just wondering. My estimation is that there was no point to found another institute for the study of mainstream string theory. There were many bigger, better and older places doing just that. I guess the wise thing to do was to bet on a different horse. Time will tell if they were right.

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  11. Hi Giotis:

    If you do as much as look at PI's website you'll find that PI is very far from being a 'fortress of LQG' (and LQG btw is not the same as QG). Besides having a string theory group, we also have cosmology, quantum information + foundations, and a particle physics group. The idea was exactly that PI should not specialize on any particular approach to QG. Best,

    B.

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  12. Bee, have you seen the faculty members of the quantum gravity sector in this PI's web site?
    Thiemann, Markopoulou, Freidel, Smolin...do I have to say more?

    So I can only conclude that for PI indeed QG=LQG.

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  13. Thomas Thiemann is an associate, not resident faculty, he is in Potsdam for all I know. Maybe look up some papers by the other three before you incorrectly put them into a drawer. Besides this, the QG group doesn't only consist of faculty and, as I pointed out earlier, you are looking at one out of six groups. Do me a favor and try to get a more accurate view before you offer premature judgment.

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  14. Bee I'm sorry, I'm looking at the Quantum Gravity sector where else should I look? I know they have other departments but if string theory is not a theory of Quantum gravity then what it is good for?

    Explicitly they state in the QG site:

    "Quantum gravity is concerned with unifying Einstein's general theory of relativity with quantum theory into a single theoretical framework. At Perimeter Institute, researchers are actively pursuing a number of approaches to this problem including loop quantum gravity, spin foam models and causal set theory."

    They don't even mention string theory and all the faculty members are known for their LQG work and for not adopting string theory as a theory of QG (at least to the best of my knowledge). What conclusion should I draw? Am I being so unreasonable?

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  15. Giotis: Yes, you are being unreasonable. I have already given you the link above, see this site, click on Superstring theory, see list of faculty members. I agree with you that string theory is an approach to quantum gravity and that this nomenclature is thus nonsense, I had previously commented on this, but I'm not responsible for the grouping on the website. As far as I am concerned the existence of separate groups in itself is an unfortunate development, but I am afraid to some extend unavoidable if a place grows.

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  16. Yes I remember. Then I was wrong Bee and you know better of course. This was my general impression (regardless of this site) and anyway this is what blogs are good for; to communicate with other people, get informed and correct your misconceptions.

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  17. Hi Giotis,

    never mind. It's just somewhat tiresome to repeat this things constantly. For whatever reasons quite a lot of people seem to believe the funniest things about PI, such as we're employed by RIM, Lee is our director, we're all doing LQG and are fighting string theory or similar nonsense. It's quite astonishing given that doing as much as looking at our website or even the Wikipedia entry could clarify a lot of these confusions. Best,

    B.

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  18. Hi Goitis,

    Howard was hired as someone to get things going, with recruiting the initial faculty, local community involvement, setting up the basic structure, getting the government/private partners on board and having the building constructed. The one thing he wan’t was in being a prominent physicists himself, which Neil Turok now represents. I think if anything the ivory tower model is now replacing the initial, and for lack of a better expression, being what was an interdisciplinary think tank model, which in effect has had it now recently shift more to strings and the related cosmology approaches, which Turok himself is a part.

    Personally, I think the most neglected group is the foundational one, which perhaps I’m biased about, as being the one not being paid enough attention to by the entire community. To my mind almost all approaches virtually are attempts to jamb fit GR, while extending little real insight into the quantum aspect. Some like Penrose are doing this from one direction, yet what I would call the Einstein/Bohm/Bell’s, where all the fundamental aspects of SR, GR and quantum theory are looked at seriously and honestly in the full light of day, I feel as sadly missing. I personally believe there will have to be a significant foundational breakthrough before any true promising approaches found or meaningful progress made. A lot of researchers feel this is to closely connected with philosophy and/or metaphysics, which although useful in the past have little if any place these days.

    When I envision what Smolin’s valley crossers to be they are these sort. There are still plenty of skeletons in the closet, such as reference frame, renormalization, density matrix and nonlocal behavior, just to mention a few of the old still unresolved. Now you throw in the new such as entropy, dark matter and dark energy and it widens further. I see the mathematics and mathematical structure(s) as racing ahead with less and less regard to what’s it’s attempting to describe, let alone explain. My sense of it was Burton represented more of this path, with the new one almost more just the status quo, in following the way things have gone now for almost a hundred years.


    Best,

    Phil

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  19. Hi,

    In a shameless burst of self-promotion, let me say that it would be best to read the book first before speculating. That is, buy it, of course, rather than borrow it from a friend (see how mercenary I'm becoming?)

    If you are interested and can spare the time, I'd be happy to personally respond to any of your questions on the afternoon of the 28th of April when I'll be in Waterloo to give a talk at UW.

    Best wishes,

    Howard Burton

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  20. Hi Howard,
    I have bought, read and highly enjoyed your book. Could you give more details about your UW visit?
    I would like to be there.

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  21. Phil is correct - quantized gravitation is abstract mathematics with economics' empirical validity. All gravitation observations used achiral atomic mass distributions. If the vacuum is chiral in the massed sector GR (Equivalence Principle), QM (conservation of angular mometnum), and perturbational string theory (BRST invariance) are incomplete.

    Perturbative quantum gravitational one-loop exact correction to the global chiral current in the standard model, string theory, and perhaps loop quantum gravity require supplementing the Einstein-Hilbert action with a parity-violating Chern-Simons term. Left and right shoes will not vacuum free fall identically. Perform a parity Eotvos experiment, then, "there's your problem!"

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  22. Like Phil,

    I have been watch this developing institution as well. In a weird sort of way feeling quite proud that such an institution was given impetus out of which an appreciation for developing of the science perspective was displayed here in the north, by Lazardis

    I really don't think it is a Ivory Tower that is being described while Turok resides in his position. Just that what you do as a theorist is brought in line with cosmology. It's much like working the LHC and see that it is working from two perspectives, not just one.

    I don't see anything wrong with that.

    Nice to see a few prominent names like Susskind, Hawking and Hooft associated with PI.

    When I seen the name of the book and the time you spent at PI Howard I was drawn to the idea of what Condense Matter theorists spoke of, in the same way Robert Laughlin looked at how he might describe the "foundational basis" that Phil was talking about.

    Witten and others understood the condensed matter point of view as well.

    Again I will read the book once finding it.

    Best,

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  23. Spacetime is an emergent phenomena

    How did you get "there" without considering a foundational basis?


    Best, :)

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  24. Hi Dr. Burton,


    I will certainly read your book, since I’ve been curious as to what you’ve been up to since you leaving PI. I must say the public lectures have not quite been the same since your departure. I particularly liked those where you engaged in a little one on one discussion with some of the guest lecturers, since as I said it brought out the human aspect of science, which I feel is so sorely missed when it comes to outreach. With Bee’s description it appears you have a few antidotes included in your book, which would be further reflective of this.


    Best,

    Phil

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  25. Hi Plato,

    You would be wrong if you think I’m critical of Turok personally in any way, as I have in the past said essentially the opposite. It’s just I imagined PI’s mission if you like was primarily becoming a place where a mixture of view points and focuses exist together, so that the strength rests more in diversity rather then specialty. I think it’s also obvious there is already enough of this.

    This business of being labeled as a string, loop, particle or whatever person I find more indicative of the problem in going forward then anything else. One thing I’m reminded of is when Smolin asked, why no one refers themselves as being an Einstienian that was missed, is that it may also have more to do with Einstein shunning labels then fostering or promoting them. If he represented anything it was not to be to over focused so much as to stifle progress by not leaving things open for ever changing ideas.

    Like Groucho Marx once proclaimed he refused to be part of any group that would accept him as a member. That’s what I consider would be the ideal position and challenge that a director of such an institute would hold as being his own and then project onto others. Now is Turok the one which can do this, I feel not only remains to be seen, yet rather does this remain seen as what it should be.

    Best,

    Phil

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  26. Phil:This business of being labelled as a string, loop, particle or whatever person I find more indicative of the problem in going forward then anything else.

    I couldn't agree with you more Phil.

    If one choses a foundational approach "that is different" then says, that there is no hope for another, then why should we see that such an environment conducive to a "vast opinion in relation to theorizations" should fostered a "negative attitude" about what it can or can't do? So your saying "a department exists" yet it's cover by what opinion?

    Even "cynicism" as to an outcome about, what it has done or not done, has been adopted by osmosis.

    Phil:It’s just I imagined PI’s mission if you like was primarily becoming a place where a mixture of view points and focuses exist together, so that the strength rests more in diversity rather then specialty.

    It's true Phil. This is it's strength as I see it as well.

    Such touches of the hockey stick was not just about a pointer? IT was about taking the role of speaker and speaking. It's very ole tradition in the Native Culture called the Talking Stick.

    OKay! Put eyes and such, on it, animate it, and what have you, and all sorts of ideas here?:) Do you want to be different...dress it up:)

    Best,

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  27. I'll leave my commentary as a physics student at UW who wants to work at PI. I have to admit that walking past the SCH and seeing the book for sale I had to immediately by it. I know that for most of my friends and I PI is the proverbial guru on the mountaintop or whatever and I have to admit that learning the history of the place is really interesting. It's also interesting to see what the contrasts between what went on in the early days and how PI is perceived now among us naive physics majors (although I do know people who have worked at PI). We don't understand all the bickering and the like that goes on in academia (we will one day.. at least those who survive) and it's curious to see how real science is like.

    I especially like reading it and realizing that many of the names are of people I know (Richard Epp was my first year physics prof and I'm so upset that UW lost him because he is why I really love physics) such as Epp, Rob Mann, or Raymond LaFlamme.

    I think what I really appreciate the most about PI is that it gives me the hope that some people out there really do appreciate theoretical physics and are willing to give money to allow people to conduct research. Also having attending a few colloquium at PI and spent some time at the building really just makes me want to buckle down and work even harder to try and get there.

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  28. Phil - agree with your observations on lack of focus on foundational core.

    Howard - Everybody knows you built the Institute from the ground up. That's a very challenging assignment which you accomplished with high honor. Stand tall and disregard all criticisms. Similarly everybody understands that to move to the next phase a world renowned physicist with leadership qualities will be needed. Very kind, and smart, of you to move aside at the right time. More doors will open for you as a result.

    Neil - as new director you've done pretty good so far. But I look forward to hear from you on two big issues:

    1) What is the mission of PI, in detail? What is the path, the priority, the focus, the faculty strategy, to accomplish the mission? How does PI distinguish itself from all other major TP institutes? Spell it out. It is your job, as prominent physicist of stature, to take the vision of Mr Lazaridis and translate into official strategy. I have not heard a word about this so far. Explaining this in the form of a 'public lecture' will be welcome. You run a very special shop with a large amount of public money - you must establish your credentials and gain support with interested public. That's why they call you executive director instead of professor.

    2) The public lecture side can be improved. More resources should be assigned to it. And that include occasional presentations by PI faculty members on progress and ideas associated with PI.

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  29. Hi again,

    Sorry to keep cluttering up this blog with my own promotional blurbs, but since people have asked: I will be in Waterloo on April 28th, giving a talk at UW's graduate research conference - I think it's at 1:30 pm, which might not be terribly convenient for some, I recognize, but there's not too much I can do about that, I'm afraid.

    I will also be at a few other events (Toronto, London, Ottawa, etc) and would be happy to talk to anyone who wishes then/there in more detail. In the meantime, feel free to email me, if you wish, at hsburton1@gmail.com

    Best wishes,

    Howard

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  30. Hi Tkk,

    “agree with your observations on lack of focus on foundational core.”

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only one concerned about such things. I realize they have a department called quantum foundations which is headed by people like Lucien Hardy and Robert Spekkens yet I don’t see those that are more focused on what I call the true foundational side of things. They had Harvey Brown on sabbatical for a while that called one aspect into play yet he was only on lone.

    If I ever had a wish list of whom to found such a department would be David Z. Albert for he would represent more the total package that might have the researches keep their eye on the ball. With someone like him you could build a group to foster the mind set that could along with the others make some clear headway. I still feel there are too many of the Feynman types around with the shut up and calculate mindset. It’s one thing to say it’s all sum over histories, yet to find that enough as to ignore where from these histories might have manifest, what does it actually say?

    Best,

    Phil

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  31. Tkk: Reg 1), we've had plenty of this, believe me.

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  32. Again, as Time became something of an issue with Smolin, there was a "philosophical point of consideration" as to what time means, in the world of theoretics.

    So how should one proceed?

    So one might indeed ask what use philosophy in order to get it right as one moves forward with their scientific proposal. I saw Sean Carroll's attempt much like, "setting things in order" and being prepare for presentation.

    Being responsible, as Lee Smolin's was.

    Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance, California Institute of Technology and David Albert-Columbia University

    Sean Carroll

    This raises all sorts of questions, the most basic of which are: “What counts as `looking’ vs. `not looking’?” and “Do we really need a separate law of physics to describe the evolution of systems that are being looked at?”

    See:Quantum Diavlog

    One can ignore and think their views excludes all others "on foundational issues" then move on as if it didn't happen. That's okay:)I didn't forget Lee's attempts, or what I thought PI was doing was being responsible in this way. I thought Sean was too. This only coming from a pizza guy, or possibly a person sitting next to you on a plane.

    Human outreach demanded one remove the arrogance and "accept patience" to be in the right ideal toward relation to one's community? Ya okay, letters from all those who think they know? Knocking on our door?

    Some are indeed better then others in accepting this responsibility toward that oath of teaching? Regardless of gender race, or financial ability.

    Best,

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  33. A little self promotion then and some points toward "foundational thinking?" :)First Principle in Condense Matter Theorist point of view?

    One should not forget this if one was able to perceive the "tide of events" that were challenging theorist on a particular point of view?

    Memories Arise Out of a Equilibrium

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  34. Hi Bee,

    I just wanted to report that I have finally read this book of Howard Burton’s and found it to be very enjoyable. In as I was one of those that has traced the progress of PI since shortly after its beginning, I can certainly say it filled in many of the blanks I still had regarding its inception and creation. It does serve very well in doing this.

    Yet the most valuable thing I found it to be, was in its telling the story of a wonderful adventure of a man who took up a challenge that in itself amounts as being a work of discovery. The discoveries which Howard made, as like science itself, still remains incomplete. Yet due to the vision he formed, which was brought to be realized provided the strong foundations required for its successful continuance.

    I therefore would recommend for all those who enjoy science and even more so for those who would like to better understand what valuable it serves in being to the world to read this book.

    Best,

    Phil

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  35. Hi Phil,

    I'm glad you liked the book :-)

    -B.

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