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BMO donates $4-million to create Isaac Newton chair at Perimeter Institute

It may be called the Perimeter Institute, but it is fast becoming the centre of the universe.

On Monday, the Waterloo-based centre announced the biggest corporate donation in its history and the formation of five new chairs - two milestones in a larger mission to attract the world's biggest physics brains.

In that quest, they've enlisted some high-profile names.

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A $4-million donation from BMO Financial Group will establish the Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics, the first of five new chairs named for the lions of the field, the others being James Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Paul Dirac.

"[Newton's]discoveries heralded the age of science and laid the basis of mechanics, engineering, space travel, and even our understanding of the universe," said Mike Lazaridis, co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion and the man who founded Perimeter with $100-million in seed money 10 years ago. "What we're doing here at PI is trying to live up to this remarkable tradition, because discoveries in basic physics pave the way for new insight in technologies that can change the way we live, travel, communicate, produce our food, heat our homes and much more."

The $4-million may seem small alongside the $200-million in private donations the institute has received, but it comprises the largest sum BMO has ever doled out for science, a sure sign of the Perimeter Institute's ambition and reach.

"Canadian thought leadership is something we often undercelebrate," BMO president and CEO Bill Downe said. "While it's not always easy to understand what the researchers are doing, what is easy to understand is the importance of what's being studied."

While audacity may not be the superlative most associated with Canadian academia, it's central to the Perimeter ethos. This is the institution that lured Stephen Hawking to its sleek, black building for a six-week working visit, and a place that includes world authorities on such abstract ideas as string theory, quantum computing and theoretical cosmology. And now it's the world's only institution bold enough to name its research chairs for the greatest thinkers in physics.

Perimeter's director refused to reveal who will fill the Newton chair, but said the news would be forthcoming. "That's the $64,000 question," Neil Turok said. "I can assure you we will use it to bring one of the world's finest theoretical physicists here."

In broadening its ranks of top-flight thinkers, Perimeter is sopping up brain-power at a time when institutions in Europe and the United States are feeling the pinch of a bleak economy.

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"Within the field, it has become a global magnet for the world's best talent, a light tower so to speak," said Rainer Dick, physics professor at the University of Saskatchewan and Chair of the Division of Theoretical Physics for the Canadian Association of Physicists. "It is way up there with Princeton."

The big ideas scratched upon blackboards throughout the institute's building might seem too conceptual for any practical purpose, but past breakthroughs have given rise to lasers, electron microscopes and computers. The emerging fields of nanotechnology and quantum computing hold the promise of similar advances.

"It is magic which works," Mr. Turok said of the work he oversees. "The world works according to mathematical rules, and with persistence we can discover them and use them to create phenomenon that are truly magical."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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