In 1999, Mike Lazaridis, co-founder of RIM (later BlackBerry), had a vision of creating a space where physicists could tackle the biggest questions of how the universe works. He was intent on creating an institute of excellence from the ground up, attracting the best and brightest in the field of theoretical physics – tackling big questions from quantum to cosmos – and providing a place for collaboration and innovation. His goal: the institute would become the top theoretical physics research centre in the world, attracting the world's most dynamic scientific minds in pursuit of breakthroughs that would transform the future. He made an initial donation of $100 million to jumpstart the initiative and established public and private partnerships with all levels of government and support from individual, corporations and foundations.

Less than 20 years later, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics has attracted some of the world leaders in physics, including Neil Turok (the Institute's director for the past decade), Lee Smolin, Asimina Arvanitaki, Davide Gaiotto and Avery Broderick, as well as quantum physics experts Daniel Gottesman and Rob Spekkens, among others. Stephen Hawking spent extended periods working and collaborating at Perimeter as one of the institute's Distinguished Visiting Research Chairs.

During a special 2010 lecture at Perimeter, Hawking stated: "The recipe is simple: Bring brilliant people together, in an inspiring and free intellectual environment, where they are encouraged to pursue ambitious and timely research. The importance of special places and special times, where magical progress can happen, cannot be overstated. It seems to me, the same ingredients are being assembled here, at Perimeter Institute. Perimeter is a grand experiment in theoretical physics. I am hoping, and expecting, great things will happen here."

After the Institute quickly outgrew its original space, the Stephen Hawking Centre opened in 2011. It is the only building in the world to bear his name.

Researchers at Perimeter Institute are trying to understand how matter works at the most fundamental level to lay the foundation for future technology. Researchers focus on nine core fields of research: Strong gravity, condensed matter, particle physics, quantum fields and strings, quantum gravity, quantum foundations, quantum information, mathematical physics, and cosmology. But collaboration is vital, as the most profound discoveries are expected to come from the intermingling of expertise in such fields. That's why Perimeter was custom-built to encourage collaboration, whether at the many blackboards, in cozy nooks, or in the on-site restaurant, the Black Hole Bistro.

"We are a highly collaborative, inter-disciplinary environment because the most important breakthroughs are expected to happen at the intersections between subfields of physics. Perimeter's nine different research areas span the breadth of theoretical physics, from understanding quantum theory to the study of the smallest particles and potential new materials, and the biggest questions we know of: where did the universe come from, what rules govern it, and where is it all headed," said Michael Duschenes, Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer, Perimeter Institute. "Practically every technology we use today, from computers to smartphones to lifesaving medical devices emerged from breakthroughs in fundamental, curiosity-driven physics. The discoveries being made today will create new knowledge and make possible the next wave of transformative technologies to further humanity in ways we have only begun to imagine."

Inherently collaborative, scientists at PI are given the freedom and resources to tackle physics problems in whatever way they find is most productive. Researchers have played key roles in the theory behind multi-messenger astronomy, quantum error correction (an essential component of quantum computing), particle physics, black hole research, and more. Perimeter's administrative staff handles things like arrangements for conferences and grant applications, freeing the scientists to concentrate fully on their research.

The same philosophy guides Perimeter's Master's-level course, Perimeter Scholars International (PSI), which, since its inception in 2009, has become one of the top physics graduate programs in the world. PSI is a fully-funded program with accommodation and meals provided. The program is an intense one-year program into the full gamut of theoretical physics, positioning students to work at the intersections of fields, where breakthroughs are most expected. Thanks to the program's focus on collaboration and critical thinking, it prepares students for a wide range of future paths — from pure research to applied science to careers in technology, finance, or industry. Upon graduation, students hold both a Master of Science in Physics from the University of Waterloo and a Perimeter Scholars International Certificate from Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Past PSI students have pursued doctorates and research careers at Perimeter and other top institutions worldwide, while others have gone on to work on Wall Street, in the aerospace industry, in emerging technology companies, in science communications, and in the not-for-profit sector.

"Although the time between discovery and application can be long—it took 50 years for quantum theory to result in the transistor, which was the backbone of the computing revolution—it is getting shorter. As a research accelerator, we aim to close the gap by providing the environment necessary to do this extremely ambitious, difficult work. After all, the World Wide Web began as a way for fundamental physics researchers to exchange information, and no one imagined how profoundly it would eventually shape our world," said Duschenes.

Among the major projects in which Perimeter scientists are conducting key research:

The Event Horizon Telescope

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is a vast network of radio telescopes and radio observatories across the globe working together to capture the first image of a black hole in space. A member of Perimeter's faculty, Avery Broderick, is one of the leaders of the massive international collaboration. The project uses Very Long Baseline Interferometry at short wavelengths to directly observe the area around a black hole. By linking the radio observatories and radio telescopes around the world, the result is essentially an Earth-sized telescope of unprecedented precision. It can observe both Sagittarius A, the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, and Messier 87, the black hole in the Virgo constellation. The goals of the EHT are to test the limits of Einstein's general relativity theory, to observe the immediate environment around the black holes. The image the EHT captures will be a first for humanity – a glimpse of something previously assumed beyond the reach of our technology – and a testament to the power of fundamental science. (Source: The Perimeter Institute is the hub for the analysis of the vast amount of data the EHT is producing.

Quantum Matter Initiative

This initiative is an effort to apply machine-learning algorithms to search for new quantum materials. Collaborative research in the fields of condensed matter physics, quantum information, quantum gravity, and string theory is a hallmark of Perimeter Institute and has now broadened to include international researchers, postdoctoral students and collaboration with some of the top companies in the world including Intel, Google and Microsoft. Research is focusing on state-of-the-art numerical and analytic approaches to the many-body problem, application of modern information and complexity theory to quantum many-body physics, quantum error correction, non-equilibrium phenomena, chaos, scrambling and complexity in quantum matter and holography and other areas of interest.

Breakthroughs in this field could unlock powerful new understandings of nature, with the potential to influence everything from computation to energy transmission to communications.

Centre for the Universe

Perimeter Institute launched the Centre for the Universe in November 2017, with a goal of establishing Canada and Perimeter as assembling leading minds in cosmology, and developing collaborations with key experimental institutes, tackling big questions such as how the universe began, how it works at a fundamental level and where it's headed. In collaboration with Perimeter, the founding partners for the Centre are The Canadian Institute for Theoretical Physics (CITA), the Dunlap Institute at the University of Toronto, the Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Waterloo, SNOLAB and Queen's University, University of Guelph and York University. Nobel Laureate Arthur McDonald is a research patron, as was the late Stephen Hawking, and several prestigious new fellowships will support the work of ambitious emerging scientists. Research is intended to bridge theory and experiment, "connecting with leading experiments and observatories and spurring collaborations between Perimeter and other top institutions," said Duschenes. "Modern science is international and collaborative; Perimeter's scientists play a lead role in these collaborations and other major research projects. It is a team sport."

Educational Outreach

"Educational outreach is one of the founding mandates of Perimeter Institute because we know that a scientifically literate and engaged society is a prosperous, successful society," said Duschenes. Perimeter has a dedicated publishing website to share the wonder of physics throughout the world through articles, videos and social media content. Videos have been accessed over three million times, and the website receives hundreds of thousands of visits every year.

Perimeter's Educational Outreach programs inspire students and teachers with hands-on activities to spark "a-ha" moments about the power of science. Through in-class resources and a teacher-training network, Perimeter's educational experiences reach thousands of teachers and millions of students every year. Perimeter holds yearly "summer camps" that attract top international students and teachers who benefit from immersive, hands-on workshops.

Throughout the year, Perimeter hosts monthly public lectures by eminent international scientists. Tickets to attend in person are always snapped up in minutes, so Perimeter webcasts each talk live and makes them available on the Institute's YouTube channel. Some of the public topics included the importance of LIGO's discovery of gravitational waves, the opportunities presented by exciting new quantum materials, and how physics has shaped our society and economy.

As part of the Canada sesquicentennial celebration in 2017, Perimeter Institute led Innovation150, a national celebration of Canadian ingenuity. Partnering with Actua, the Institute for Quantum Computing, the Canadian Association of Science Centres and Ingenium – Canada's Museums of Science and Innovation – Innovation150 toured the country to deliver hands-on science experiences from coast to coast to coast, including many under-serviced and remote locations, reaching over 190 communities and over 70,000 youth.

Perimeter Institute also hosts the privately supported Event Horizons series of classical music performances from world-renowned artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, the Hagen String Quartet, Vox Luminis and Xuefei Yang. There is also a Perimeter Institute Orchestra – made up of researchers, students and staff – which regularly performs in Perimeter's four-storey atrium.

Perimeter is an essential part of an “innovation ecosystem” in Waterloo Region, which spans theoretical and experimental science, top universities, and a thriving technology start-up scene. The University of Waterloo is one of North America's top-tier schools for mathematics and computer science and is the home to the Institute for Quantum Computing, (Perimeter Institute's experimental sister institution). Perimeter has one of the most prestigious and sought-after graduate programs in the world in theoretical physics. The Lazaridis School for Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University is a top institution for training entrepreneurs and business leaders. Quantum Valley Investments supports early-stage technology companies emerging from quantum research. The area has affordable, family-friendly communities surrounded by natural beauty that appeals to visiting scientists with young families.

"It's unlike anywhere else I've been," said Duschenes. "The area has become known as 'Quantum Valley' thanks to the presence of the Perimeter Institute, the Institute for Quantum Computing and Quantum Valley Investments, as well as many emerging quantum start-ups. The entire innovation chain—from fundamental research to experiment to commercialization—exists in one relatively small area."

"We want brilliant, daring and collaborative scientists who are interested in the most profound questions in science. Some apply; others are invited. Perimeter is not a place for business as usual. We have an impatience and desire to discover, to recognize clearly when conventional approaches are failing and to open and explore promising new avenues. We constantly challenge ourselves to be agile, entrepreneurial, and inter-disciplinary, and to look beyond narrow, over-specialized concerns towards the big picture."

May 17, 2018
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