Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Stephen Hawking Centre

Last year, I told you about Perimeter Institute's expansion. According to their 5 year plan (which you can download here) the "recruitment goal is approximately 25 Faculty members (11 at present) and 25 Associate Faculty members (11 at present)." The number of postdocs is supposed to increase to 45-50. Needless to say, they only hire "the world’s most promising Postdoctoral Researchers, seeking out independent-minded individuals and encourag[e] them to pursue unorthodox, “riskier” research." Cough. Let's not forget however that these postdocs just "generat[e] a flow-through of the most promising talent." In other words, if you integrate them over a closed surface, you get zilch. The 5-year plan contains many more nice words, together with a detailed explanation how "the whole" will be "far greater than the sum of its parts," and how this master-plan relates to the root-system of of E8 (see diagram).

In any case, the original estimate for the Institute's space requirements had a factor 2 or so missing. Is what happens when the parts don't sum. By now, the box is full, students sit in the corners on the corridors and thus the building will be expanded by the "Stephen Hawking Centre." (Not a typo but a tribute to the Queen.) Speaking of Stephen Hawking, I'm presently sitting in my old office which, so I'm told will be used for Hawking's assistant during his visit, while he himself will get the corner office, directly below Lee's. Some great man stocking going on here. But more great men have to be stocked, so architects were consulted how to extend the building without ruining its looks. Here's what they came up with:

(That's where you're supposed to ooh and aaah.) Pretty, hum? I actually like it better than the original design, it looks more dynamic and less intimidating. It wasn't easy to come up with a feasible expansion due to various environmental constraints. What you see in the picture is the (new) main entrance and the East and North side of the building. (The lake is to the right.) The new part is being built around the old one. In reality it presently looks like this (click to enlarge):

I'm curious how it will look when finished. Inside the building, the ongoing construction is hardly noticeable. Except that the stair that I used to take to get to my office is gone, which I keep forgetting and then find myself standing in front of a wall wondering what's going on.


  1. Hi Sabine, thanks for the update. Also, nice logo.

  2. Dear Bee,

    it seems construction progress was fast, in spite of the winter. But the actual construction somehow looks much smaller than the "ooh and aah" computer illustration ;-)

    Cheers, Stefan

  3. Bee wrote:

    ...if you integrate them over a closed surface, you get zilch.

    Surly there are enough obstructions and loopholes to provide a nontrivial topology, no? So even if all postdocs turn out to be integrable, you could still get nontrivial characteristic classes...

    But seriously: What impact does a stay at Perimeter have on your career prospects as a postdoc? (That's a question about your personal opinion as an insider about the sociological position of the institute compared to the major universities - I hope it can be answered without having to insult too many people :-)

  4. Hi Bee,

    It looks like the construction for expanding PI is well underway as to have the Stephen Hawking Centre soon to be filled with many more researchers. I noticed the design has virtually the whole extension supported by pillars and thus avoiding expanding the foundation which I suspect had a lot to do with satisfying those environmental concerns you mentioned. I do hope the plans include an in floor heating system for that first floor for otherwise no matter how well insulated below would have the offices on the first floor a chilly place in winter, especially for any Einstein wantabees in the habit of not wearing socks:-)

    It’s also interesting to hear your old office will be occupied briefly by Hawking’s assistant, which had me think perhaps they should have a little plague outside each one that gives note to who has worked there before. From the few times I’ve been at PI I found the offices a little small and austere and perhaps such a thing would have the place humanized a bit more. That gives me another idea, perhaps they should build a party room and call it “The Event Horizon” and as like Los Vegas boast that whatever happens within no information of what transpired will ever escape to be known:-)



  5. What little I know of Perimeter is that it began in earnest about 3 weeks after 9/11/01 (per Smolin's TTwP book), and is therefore quite young by Institute standards; that it's Canada's "answer" to America's Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton; that its weight room is almost completely unused per Lisi; and a few other things, so my question may be a bit pre-mature:

    Is there such a thing as "tenure" among the faculty there? Who has it if so?

  6. Tim: Ones career prospects depend on many aspects, and the places one has been is only one of them. It is weighted differently depending on where you go. Hopefully the most important factor is your qualification, not what names you can list in your CV.

    However, the places you have been do of course make a difference with regards to what education, opportunities, and support they can and do offer. Perimeter Institute takes good care of their postdocs. I've been postdoc representative for some while when I was here, and they clearly understand that the reputation of the institute depends a lot on whether postdocs they've had continue to be successful. PI is thus very supportive or at least they try to (good intentions aren't always sufficient). Add to this that Perimeter Institute is a very inspiring place. They have lots of workshops, conferences and visitors, so there's ample opportunity to learn and meet interesting people. Taken together, prospects are excellent. They actually keep track of how their postdocs are doing, but I don't know the exact numbers, so I can just vaguely say they look good.

    The problem is of course to find a place, other than PI, to fit in. PI encourages you to be bold, be courageous, be crazy. Go where no one else has gone before, even if you fail. Most places can, quite literally, not afford that. Best,


  7. Hi Phil,

    That's a nice suggestion. Yes, sometimes I'm wondering who has been sitting at this desk before, what where they thinking of, what are they doing now, etc. You are also right about the pillars etc. If I recall correctly, the parking lot (from which the photo was taken) is a flooding area (can't recall a flood when I was here, but maybe it happened before), so they can't build on it (that would have been the obvious solution, but wasn't possible.) The side towards the lake on the other hand is part of the "Waterloo Park," so they can't expand in this direction either. Best,


  8. Hello Bee,
    I'd like to remind You of "potholes".
    Maybe Your present stay at PI
    and when You return to Stockholm
    is a good occasion to compare the
    streets in both countrys?

  9. Steven: Yes, PI is a fairly young place, and they're having some growing pains like all other places. For what the gym is concerned, I go running in the morning. I don't care very much about the weather, except that more than 5 inches snow make running pretty much impossible. There's an indoor track nearby which I would use then, but one winter it was closed for 3 weeks due to an ice-hockey event. I actually mentioned this here. So, I've been using PI's gym during these weeks. My data is thus not overwhelming, but there were indeed other people than me using the equipment, including the weights. However, sweating with faculty members isn't really my idea of a pleasant morning, so I stopped using the gym asap. I believe it's mostly visitors using it.

    One other remark is that the gym has a glass front towards a path that's frequently used by people walking their dogs. I don't particularly like this glass-house feeling. In any case, I can't recall the details of the construction plan, but I believe also the gym will be expanded, or maybe it will be moved elsewhere. I think it's great they have one to begin with.

    They didn't originally have tenure, but now they do. I'm not up to date on who has and who hasn't.



  10. Phil Warnell said...they should have a little plague outside each one

    The Newtonian approach! Black Plague 1665-6 awarded the calculus, particulate theory of light, and universal gravitation. Newton fled Cambridge, retired to his farm, got bored, thought new thoughts.

    June 1902, Einstein was a "technical expert third class" at the Bern Patent Office. Pressure built... 1905, annus mirabilis.

    Discovery is birthed by individual boredom not metrics of group productivity. Google is the word champion aggregator of bored Profoundly Gifted. Cover all their needs, task with insufficient work, wait for minds to sing solo.

    PI has the libretto in place but still lacks the score.

  11. Hi Georg,

    I was actually thinking of the potholes yesterday! The streets seem to be in an excellent condition though. Phil mentioned that this year's winter has been unusually mild here though, so maybe that's why. Best,


  12. PS: Since I don't have a car however, I don't get around a lot during this visit.

  13. Hi Bee,

    With our talk about giving some recognition to those who occupied offices in the past, it left me to wonder if PI even has a suggestion box? Although it’s obvious that the PI mission is to create the best possible environment for theoretical research, yet I wonder how much that extends to having the researchers themselves involved in the process. That’s to say that although exercise rooms and the promotion of collaboration being one aspect, yet what about the more subtle things that leaves the individual to feel important and valued. I’m left with the understanding that for the post docs Perimeter represents not much beyond one more hurdle that needs to be cleared for their careers to be established, with having little or no chance it is the place itself representing that final rung on the ladder.

    That’s to say I find a lot of similarities between research and professional sport, with having to wonder ultimately which model it best parallels, being that of individual sports such as tennis and golf or team sports like soccer and hockey. I think it all boils down to Uncle Al’s contention where he believes that its more of an individual thing , yet I would argue that ever since the successful discovery and subsequent development of quantum theory its been more of a group endeavour. That is he cites examples such as Newton and Einstein, yet I would counter what more today represents modern physics beginnings being the Copenhagen collaborative headed by Bohr.

    I would then furthercontend that physics has crossed a threshold where its predominately something that’s approached best as a team where even those like Witten, t’Hooft, Penrose, Hawking and others only represent simply the superstars of a required and found within a greater team effort. So I would say this image of the solitary genius is today little more than a romantic notion, which reflects not to be the reality of what’s required to meet the challenges which physics faces, both now and into the future. So although I’m not excluding individuals to having their own “ happy thoughts” it will take more then themselves to sort out what they mean as to the implications held within them..



  14. Hi Bee,

    I think the goal of the Perimeter institute is definitely very good, since new theories, that take risks could be blessing. However they need to be confirmed, so they must become conservative. Question: how much does theories from the Perimeter institute rely on experiments ?

    Best Kay

  15. Hi Kay,

    Excellent question :-) The experimental input differs dramatically from field to field. Look at the 8 research areas that are mentioned in the diagram. Condensed matter, particle physics, cosmology and quantum information have plenty of experimental input. To a lesser degree there's input for complex systems (it's not that there's no experiments, but they're not always very conclusive) and quantum foundations. Then there's string theory and quantum gravity where experimental input is lacking. One could say though that parts of these fields have input from condensed matter and particle physics (esp AdS/CFT and emergent gravity scenarios). And then one should keep in mind that absence of experiments is also a call upon theoretical physicists to come up with a suitable tests, so it's natural there are areas (quantum gravity) where experiments are future music.

    However, except for the contact to the ICG, PI has been very detached from experiment, detached by location and organization. For me this has been a dramatic change, I've never been at another institute where there were no experimentalists. I don't think that's a good situation: if you leave theorists alone they become self-referential and eventually get lost. I think I'm not the only one with that impression. Thus, if you look at the 5-year plan you'll find they want to actively support more contact to experiment, eg

    "Engage with scientists at experimental and observational centres such as the Large Hadron Collider; the Planck satellite; VISTA, VLT, the SKA and other observatories; SNOlab and other astroparticle facilities; and LIGO, LISA and other gravitational wave detectors."

    This was discussed already when I was there, in particular exactly how this engagement should be supported. It is too bad that I won't be able to make use of it. Best,




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