Does intellectual speculation have value? That's one eternal question the theoretical physicists at Mike Lazaridis's Perimeter Institute probably shouldn't be thinking about.
The BlackBerry tycoon has donated $170-million to build a stunning research centre in Waterloo, Ont., where some of the world's most brilliant minds can confront fundamental problems of the universe in the renegade spirit of Newton and Einstein.
To look at this far-reaching quest in terms of bottom-line rewards would seem to be a very earthbound way of missing the point. The best thinking, philosophers have insisted for centuries, can never be a means to an end: Money distracts the mind almost as much as an absence of money.
So it may be that investing in theoretical physics, as economist Deirdre McCloskey says, is about as dependable as investing in poetry.
But not so fast. Perhaps it isn't all so beautifully useless after all. This week, the Bank of Montreal bought into Mr. Lazaridis's vision and donated $4-million to create a new research chair in theoretical physics, one of five corporate-sponsored posts planned for the ever-expanding Perimeter.
After years of neglect, pure research may be mounting a comeback, because it has figured out how to portray itself as socially and economically advantageous.
With special guest star Stephen Hawking …
At the Perimeter Institute, allusively known to insiders as "Pi," much of that transformation has been carried out by its director, Neil Turok, a distinguished cosmologist who brought global attention to the centre by persuading his friend and collaborator Stephen Hawking to take up a visiting fellowship.
Mr. Turok is shrewd enough to recognize that corporate money likes to bask in the glow of celebrity, and clever enough to make a convincing case for funding highly speculative pursuits in a prudent, money-driven culture. "The maximum payoff in science comes from super-ambitious, unpredictable areas," he says with the self-assurance of a man whose day job is explaining the nature of the universe. If you're the kind of investor who is attracted to the rewards of risk, then you're already won over.
Canadian banks, historically, are less likely to be identified with risk. But the corporate culture is changing, says Ed Waitzer of York University's Schulich School of Business.
"The best CEOs are people who've developed the ability to synthesize complex ideas from completely unrelated fields like science and philosophy. What to one person is theory becomes to another person the grist for very practical applications."
The practicality of his work doesn't escape Dr. Turok. For him, it's a given that most of what we now regard as human progress, the devices that make our world smarter, faster, healthier, easier, can be traced back to breakthroughs in theoretical physics. If pure physics produced such enormous breakthroughs in the past, then it will do so in the future, and the only question becomes how you position yourself to encourage those discoveries.
The answer is what he calls "the simple naive vision of Michael Lazaridis," an institute that needs little more than coffee, blackboards and the unlimited power of the mind.
"Here's a field that's been extra-fruitful," Dr. Turok says, "and yet people missed what was blindingly obvious: Gathering brilliant people together, giving them a good working environment , challenging them to go for the most difficult problems, this is something you can do strategically. And when you do it, and you do it well, you become a magnet for talent."
Lab booms, space-race-style
Can the free association of limitless funds and outsized brains generate breakthroughs? The Manhattan Project successfully produced the atomic bomb, for better and for worse. The Rockefeller Foundation created the Green Revolution in the developing world, an example the Gates Foundation is emulating with its goal of solving the AIDS crisis is Africa, so far with less success.
CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, has brought together scores of researchers (including two from Perimeter) to analyze results from the Large Hadron Collider. It is optimistic that it will revolutionize theories in particle physics. But in that happy-accident, free-association way of money plus intelligence, CERN is also the place where the World Wide Web was born as a way of fostering communications within its own far-flung community.
In this respect, CERN resembles NASA: The post-Sputnik space race might have been the focus, but the spinoffs were perhaps more productive – in the case of the NASA, about 1,700 documented technologies, including advanced robotics, self-righting life rafts, tissue-imaging equipment, golf-ball aerodynamics and fire-resistant clothing.
"The mission to the moon wasn't a very practical thing to do," Dr. Turok notes. "And yet all the U.S. scientists of that generation that I know were brought into science because of it."
On the other hand, Albert Einstein did his most important work as a solitary patent clerk. Only in later life did he find his way to the Institute for Advanced Research in Princeton, a dedicated research centre that has been accused of overvaluing genius-level thought at the expense of real-life interactions.
Similar criticisms have been levelled at Perimeter, but Dr. Turok will have none of it. "There's almost no way of knowing what will come out of this, but something will come out, because these people are not coming here to relax."
You can't be both creative and predictable
The sheer power of pushing smart people together and waiting for something to happen is the essence of a research institute. And yet it offends the control-freak side of most funding agencies. "Governments want predictability when they give out money," says Margaret MacMillan, the Warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford. "But that's not creativity. Look at Silicon Valley: They build offices where people can play, bump into each other, have meals together. They've obviously realized that this works."
The communal nature of Perimeter's social structure follows that lead: Smart people talk and make intellectual connections when they bump up against each other. This old-is-new approach to basic theorizing has also caught the attention of University of Toronto's John Polanyi.
"Governments resist the idea that scientists should be free to make discoveries where nature at any given time allows, not where governments in their wisdom prefer," he notes. "Lazaridis understands this full well. Since he makes money, he may be listened to. My expectation, however, is that he won't be, so deeply entrenched in the idea that basic science should be steered in the direction of perceived application."
Dr. Turok is familiar with this widespread understanding of usefulness. He used to teach at Cambridge University, among the courts and libraries where Isaac Newton studied both gravity and alchemy, but left when research yielded to commercial pressures.
He gladly traded Cambridge's historic beauty for Waterloo's work-in-progress sensibility. "Governments around the world in the last 10 years have chosen to focus on short-term, economically productive science and technology, to the exclusion of creativity. In Cambridge, with an amazing tradition of discovery, the physics department was busy producing [flat] screens and doing food science to enable better hamburgers to be produced. The consequence is that the best students don't want to go there, because the work isn't fundamental, it isn't exciting."
Research of that kind can be justified easily to taxpayers suspicious of ivory-tower time-wasters. Often, they don't even have to pick up the tab, once corporations start paying for academic expertise. But the limitations should be equally obvious.
"You have to allow for the unusual and unexpected all along the cycle of discovery," says Michael Hayden, a University of British Columbia genetics researcher. "You have to give people room to play so that they can come up with something innovative, as opposed to directing the process too early and too often."
Perimeter, buoyed by Mr. Lazaridis's largesse, can afford to focus on the playful and exciting stuff that attracts the brightest minds. And that's become a key selling point in the case for theory's investment potential.
Changing the course of history isn't a get-rich-quick scheme
The problem with evaluating intellectual speculation is that we can do so only after the fact – often centuries after.
We know that the discoveries of Newton and Einstein have resulted in immense economic spin-offs. But that doesn't mean that we can replicate their conditions and then confidently play the waiting game. There are too many variables, too many uncertainties, too much failure (which is a natural consequence of theorizing's unpredictable ways).
Even if you achieve the next generation of Einsteinian brilliance, will it be recognized for what it is? Will its commercial applications readily appear on cue, and will they benefit those who underwrote the theorizing?
Discovery exists in a world of happy and unhappy accidents, as physicists know better than most, and the success stories are the most unpredictable of all.
Ancient Greek thought somehow pointed the way to American prosperity, but building a school modelled on Plato's Academy probably won't make you rich any time soon.
And so Perimeter is being sold as a place that will enrich the wider Canadian community – brilliant people moving among us, elevating our minds and making us more innovative and competitive, turning theoretical physics into business buzzwords.
Many of them who come as students will stay to teach our children or take jobs where their understanding of high-tech investment and their independent casts of mind are highly valued.
How could a bank or a government supporter not be lured in by such arguments? That's how they suddenly they find themselves supporting research chairs in theoretical physics.
Could poetry be next?
John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.
Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version had incorrect figures about the amount of money Mike Lazaridis has donated to the Perimeter Institute. This online version has been corrected.