Saturday, October 22, 2005

EinsteinFest: Howard, Mike and Us


This morning’s EinsteinFest presentation by Howard Burton, the Executive Director of Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics had the grandiose title of First Principles: Building an Einstein Factory. The title was just a tad grandiose, or as Howard put it, ludicrous. Still, in one of the best tongue-in-cheek, good-natured satirical lectures I’ve seen in a very long while, PI’s ED did a superb job of explaining the origins and plans for the Perimeter Institute.

This was the only lecture I’ve attended during the entire festival in which Michael Duschenes, Director of Programming for the Perimeter Institute didn’t introduce the speaker or control the Q&A. In what were only partially masked references to conversations Howard and Michael must have had about obvious deficiencies of presenters and their lectures during the festival, the Executive Director structured his presentation in a parody of what one might expect in the most anal of Toastmasters meetings. He actually had slides for End of the Beginning, End of the Middle, and End of the End. In addition, in yet another burlesque of academic testing, Howard evaluated the Perimeter Institute thus far on how Einstein might have scored achievement of major goals for the organization – 82%.

Despite the comic relief, I should quickly add that Howard is a remarkably able communicator and, from what I have heard, an ideal person to be leading PI. With him at the helm, and with Mike Lazaridis and other RIM contributors financing the endowment of the organization, the future looks very bright. But everyone seems to agree that Howard and Mike together are only the start. The trajectory of PI will depend more fully on how well the S-factor multiplies their efforts. In other words, the sociological factors (including political support at provincial and federal levels, support and advice from the scientific advisory council, and general community enthusiasm for science and the foundational questions of theoretical physics) are what will make or break PI.

If there is indeed to be another Einstein manufactured by PI, the consensus seems to be that he or she is as likely to come from the community supporting PI as from the post doctoral researchers, visiting scholars, or graduate students thinking inside the facility. Good luck to PI and thanks for a grand festival!

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