Thursday, November 27, 2008

Stephen Hawking to Visit Perimeter Institute

I just recieved the following email:

Professor Stephen Hawking to Regularly Visit Canada's Perimeter Institute as Distinguished Research Chair

Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, November 27, 2008 - Dr. Neil Turok, Director of Canada's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI), is pleased to announce the appointment of internationally renowned scientist Professor Stephen Hawking to the position of PI Distinguished Research Chair.

Prof. Hawking will conduct regular stays at PI in coming years, beginning in the summer of '09, and says, "I am honoured to accept the first Distinguished Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute. The Institute's twin focus, on quantum theory and gravity, is very close to my heart and central to explaining the origin of the Universe. I look forward to building a growing partnership between PI and our Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, at Cambridge. Our research endeavour is global, and by combining forces I believe we will reap rich rewards."

In announcing that Prof. Hawking will visit PI for extended periods each year, PI Director Neil Turok said, "The appointment marks a new phase in our recruitment that will see leading scientists from around the world establish a second 'research home' at Perimeter Institute. I am delighted that Stephen has agreed to accept the first of a projected 40 such visiting Chairs. We look forward to hosting Stephen in Waterloo, Ontario, to benefiting from his wise mentorship and guidance which has been so successful in Cambridge, and to the many stimulating scientific collaborations which will undoubtedly emerge."

About Prof. Hawking

Prof. Stephen Hawking is possibly the world's most famous living physicist, having made several extraordinary contributions to fundamental theoretical physics, especially in establishing the classical and quantum properties of black holes and in building quantum gravitational theories of the origin of the Universe and structures within it. His most celebrated work was the theoretical prediction that black holes should emit radiation, known as Hawking radiation. Prof. Hawking is presently the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a position once held by Isaac Newton. He has authored many popular books, ranging from A Brief History of Time (1988) to George's Secret Key to the Universe (2007). Additional information can be found here.

About Perimeter Institute

Canada's Perimeter Institute is an independent, non-profit, scientific research and educational outreach organization where international scientists push the limits of our understanding of physical laws and develop new ideas about the very essence of space, time, matter and information. The centre provides a multi-disciplinary environment to foster scientific collaboration in research areas of cosmology, particle physics, quantum foundations, quantum gravity, quantum information, superstring theory, and related disciplines. The Institute also provides outreach resources and public lectures for students, teachers and the general public in order to share the joy of scientific research, discovery and innovation. In partnership with the Governments of Ontario and Canada, PI continues to be a successful example of private and public collaboration in science research and education. A full history is available at

See also: Globe and Mail: Waterloo lures Hawking


  1. I think it's great news !

    But I wonder if PI will benefit scientifically from this or more publicly ? (considering his age ...)

  2. I don't know if Stephen Hawking believes in (hard to define what that would mean for a person, anyway!) the "many worlds" idea of quantum mechanics. He would be interested I'm sure in an actual logical problem, not just the outrage of it to "common sense." (OK, so this is a "trick" for me to post a pet peeve, but at least it's a fundamental problem in physics!) If I could, I'd want to ask his opinion about the following genuine IMHO consistency problem with "Many Worlds":
    Regardless of whether you call the alternative possibility/ies a literal “other world”, I in "this one" observe a specific outcome. If you think the other outcome/s must be actualized then it has to be “somewhere” in some sense of the term. (It’s already suspect because we are making more of the total integral of the WF over all spaces/?s combined, to have the whole particle “here” as well as the whole particle “there” - but let that go for a minute.)

    In any case we still have to justify “my” finding various chances for the outcomes, even granting the bastardization of conventional statistics (one person confronting multiple cases in sequence) into the idea of how likely a random “version of you” will run into a given outcome in multiplications of a given trial. Well, suppose there are two possible outcomes, but the chance is not 50/50. I ask: OK, so how many worlds/?s are created in the split?

    The temptation above is to say “two” since there are two things that could happen. But suppose the amplitudes reaching detectors are 0.8 and 0.6. Then the probabilities are 64% and 36%. So now what, we have 64 “worlds” one way and 36 “worlds” the other way, or 16 and 9, or …. to get the right proportion of chance for observation? What number of versions is appropriate? What if it’s an irrational proportion? If you have infinite branchings, then how can you define “proportion” given such infinite sets? And even if you say, it really isn’t a matter of n specific separate worlds, how then does the proportion manifest if you somehow put “all” the particle into both detectors (in say only two "worlds") to avoid collapse into only one of them?

    I wonder, with his interest in gravity and QM, if SH has an interest in "objective collapse" (of the wave function) concepts such as those of Roger Penrose involving gravity's influence. I admire Sir Roger for being candid in his criticism of the flabbiness of "decoherence" notions in getting a handle on how the extended wave function can be (or "appear to be" - yecch) near-suddenly localized in a detector (with the rest of the WF going "poof" - ?!) That detector "snatching" is the real essence and problem of QM, not the presence or not of interference.

    BTW we can cheat interference and "one way" issues by e.g. putting a half-wave plate just before or even just beyond one of the double slits (S2.) If we illuminate with say "x" linear pol, then x gets thru S1 as is but x pol. is turned into "y" pol. at S2. They are orthogonal, they "don't interfere" (per intensity!)

    However, if I measure with little polarizing meters I can find an alternating pattern in the diagonal angle of polarization on the screen: the direction of diagonal polarization flips back and forth across the screen in the same way net intensity would do in a traditional interference pattern. The changing phase relationships of the x and y pol. from the slits do that! So it seems I could have "one way" info about which slit, but really I can still find the interference pattern by making the right kind of observation. (Someone already did this sort of experiment.) Hence mere interference or lack of doesn't localize photons.

    PS I hope Hawking's visit to PI is a good one. Surely it will be more worthwhile than the hilarious fictional visit of SH to a Mensa group in "The Simpsons" - since I'm a member of the real Mensa, it was hysterical.

  3. Congratulations to PI and director Neil for making this exceptional appointment.

    Welcome Prof Hawking to PI. As Chair, younger researchers will benefit immensely from your guidance, mentoring and inspiration.

  4. Hi Bee,

    I think the news of Hawking’s affiliation with Perimeter is a good one and for more then one reason of which several have been eluded to here already. Those are first the obvious which are the boost in prestige for the institute in the publics and the professional’s perspective, although I would agree it serves more to impress the public then the scientists.

    The thing that's being overlooked is that this is all part and parcel with the previous announced beginnings of a Perimeter Cosmology Department which would put a greater emphasis on this aspect of research in terms of a goal. Up to this point much of Perimeter’s focus has been directed in directions that would lead to more immediate benefit, like a practical quantum computer for instance.

    This then I would say is part of Turok’s vision, where Perimeter is to be more seen as a place where our general understanding is hoped to be raised and let the engineers and the philosophers after decide what benefit this serves to be. You might say in short this move is to put a little more ivory on the tower to offset some of the steel from which it is already built.



  5. Stephen Hawking is well verse in the areas that Smolin and others worked not only in LQG principles but of String theory as well.

    While this place called PI was thought to be just in relation to computation I believe it is a misnomer(we don't want to encourage thoughts of cultist behavior to over rule the full scope of the institute ideology do we?) to think that this aspect of the institute was never thought in relation to gravity, as a principle, that is still a large question that sits at the background of all the science pursuits today.

    The other point and concern is, that a trend to commercialization of the information will overtake the principle sharing so PI in the lectures once available will cost now, where it was free before.

    Will one not see this if it goes over to Discovery?


  6. Hi Phil,

    Concerning the cosmology positions, I don't think this has anything to do with N. Turok, but it's probably more related to the fact that one (or at least one) cosmologist recently retired at U. of Waterloo.

    On the other hand let's hope Hawking's appointment is a wake-up call for the U. of Waterloo, let's hope they finally realize that having PI in Waterloo is something they should appreciate more and use more.

  7. Call me a cynic, but was Neil Turok chosen to run PI for one reason, his ability to recruit Stephen Hawking?

  8. Ma said: "But I wonder if PI will benefit scientifically from this or more publicly ? (considering his age ...)"

    I think that this is an interesting question. Is it good to have around people who have done great things in the past, but who are now old and contributing much less?

    I think that the answer is yes. Bear in mind how *incredibly* rare it is for anyone to make a permanent contribution to physics. Most of us dream of writing a paper that gets cited 100 or maybe [if we are very ambitious] 500 times; but this *really is* an utterly trivial thing compared with what people like Hawking have achieved. The singularity theorems, black hole evaporation etc are just in a completely different class. By honouring people like Hawking, we are helping ourselves to keep our eyes on what really matters. Citation counts on the arxiv are minor details; I could name at least one paper with 1000+ cites which I am willing to bet will be forgotten 20 years from now.

    A secondary benefit of having Hawking around is that he is a bit of a maverick, and he might cause interesting things to happen at PI. He is never boring, and that, I am very sad to say, is not true of all famous people [most painful example: the work Ed Witten has been doing for the last 5 years....]

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  10. Hi Ma,

    So you see no connection between Torok, Hawking and the expansion of cosmology within PI by contributing it to being only coincidence. Well I guess then that only time will tell. When one looks at newly created entities such as PI, one wonders if they are modeled more after places like MIT or Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies.

    It is with such consideration I can’t help but imagine that Turok’s background and interests were taken into account as reason in having him take up the reins. I also am hopeful that perhaps he will be equally interested in the outreach program, for I find this to have been in limbo since the departure of Burton.

    I find the more recent and current direction is focused around simply information distribution and PR rather then fostering public interest by way of interaction, participation and input, which I feel is most needed if the goals it wants to achieve are to be realized.

    I think that it was always understood by the founders and the board that science has traveled beyond the walls of the Ivory Towers, much without guidance or influence and that those that still maintain and occupy them need to have their presence felt so it might remain to be science rather then simply the perception of one. I personally remain hopeful that Turok, by way of recognizing his character and past demonstrated actions truly has such a vision.




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