Even when it’s expressed in “layman’s terms”, it can be a challenge to “get a handle” on the work Rob Myers has been doing. For instance, a recent media release from the University of Waterloo attempts this explanation: “Myers is a global leader in theoretical physics, pioneering the study of black holes within the broad context motivated by string theory. Among his landmark contributions are: the discovery of the first higher-dimensional rotating black hole solution (now known as the Myers-Perry metric); key progress on understanding the statistical interpretation of black hole entropy; a string theory analog of the dielectric effect – the ‘Myers effect’; and most recently developing new relationships between quantum entanglement and the emergence of space-time geometry.”
So it’s rather ironic that Myers admits that he is now working hard to – in his words – “get a handle” on his new assignment, as Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.
Myers succeeds cosmologist Dr. Neil Turok, who has served as Director since 2008, and now will continue to carry out research at Perimeter.
Less than two months after his appointment to the top post at Perimeter, Myers told Exchange, “I’m doing fine. I’m very, very busy. Part of what is keeping me busy is meeting people, but also trying to get a handle in more detail on what our friends in the admin staff are doing, what we are doing in outreach, what we’re doing in advancement and all those things.”
“There are a lot of smart people here, they’re all invested, they’re engaged in the enterprise and… I want to tap into the ideas of all the people
Myers is one of the originals at Perimeter, coming to the nascent facility 18 years ago. But he’s been doing theoretical physics; his focus until now has not been on the operational side of the institute. He says, “I was only very, very peripherally involved in those things. But now, I have to make decisions about budgets – how much money goes to this, how much money goes to that – so I have to have a different view.”
He says that upon the announcement of his appointment as director, the first thing he did was to make his acceptance speech; the second was to ask for help. “As soon as my speech stopped, my assistant sent out a bunch of emails to the senior faculty and the faculty, and that was the start of a consultation procedure. There are a lot of smart people here, they’re all invested, they’re engaged in the enterprise and as much as I have my own ideas, I want to tap into the ideas of all the people around me. It’s a collective enterprise and we’ll come up with a plan for the future.”
The Perimeter Institute was founded in 1999 by Research in Motion co-founder Mike Lazaridis. Its website explains, “Its mission is to advance our understanding of the universe at the most fundamental level, stimulating the breakthroughs that could transform our future. Perimeter also trains the next generation of physicists through innovative programs, and shares the excitement and wonder of science with students, teachers and the general public.”
Myers acknowledges that the Institute officially began 20 years ago, but explains that it took a couple of years to move beyond concept to beginning research. “Twenty years ago the Institute was declared as a charitable organization. I and the other researchers showed up about two years later, so we’re going to hold off on the celebration for a couple of years… but I’m sure there will be a party.”
In the meantime, he says, there is work to do. “We’re really building on a legacy of almost 20 years of real excellence and success. It’s not a matter that we have to find a major new course change or we have to change things, it’s more, in my mind, that we have the race car built and the engine is running fine and we just want to push on the accelerator and keep going in the right direction.
“That’s not to say that there are not things that we can do better. There are new things that we could try, but there are so many things that we are doing well that I want to keep that momentum going, really build on the success that we’ve seen.”
Made in Canada
Robert Myers has significant international connections – he received his Ph.D. from Princeton, did post-doctoral work at the University of California, and has been a “Visiting Physicist” at the Centre de Physique Theorique, Ecole Polytechnique, in Palaiseau, France. He was named one of the world’s most influential scientists by Thomson Reuters/Clarivate Analytics in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, the only Canadian listed in those years, and the only physicist worldwide to be named in each of the past four years (2014-2017).
And he is, indeed, a proud Canadian – and that’s one of the reasons he has remained a loyal part of the Perimeter Institute since its beginnings.
“I got really excited about being able to stay here, in the town where I did my undergrad, to do something for Canada. That’s really been driving me, these past 20 years.”
He grew up in Deep River, Ontario, and describes his home town as “an unusual town because it has 5,000 people, but about 2500 Ph.D.s. It’s the bedroom community for Chalk River Labs, a place the government set up. Atomic Energy Canada set up a lab there after the second world war… They did a lot of work to try to understand nuclear physics, radiation, they designed reactors… For the day, it was cutting edge research. It really is a very special place. When you’re growing up there, this is a small town and you can’t wait to get out. But afterwards… it’s really an idyllic place, a great place to bring up kids.”
His affection for doing science in his native land never waned, and he believes he is not alone in that sentiment. “We’ve been really building our base in Canada. There is a whole spectrum of donors, but there are a lot of great donors who are making significant contributions, who are really committed to Perimeter, who see it not only as a unique endeavor but as a Canadian endeavor. Mike [Lazaridis] really inspired me, but I have to confess that’s part of what drew me here – an opportunity to do something really do something special for Canada, and to stay in Canada.
“I was just starting a family, we had three young kids, and I was thinking about moving, looking for new opportunities that were south of the border, and it would have been a big step for us to move away, so I got really excited about being able to stay here, in the town where I did my undergrad, to do something for Canada. That’s really been driving me, these past 20 years.”
Myers’ new responsibilities will not preclude him from continuing his research in theoretical physics. He also holds the BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter.
But the new director underlines the fact that the Institute has had three priorities from the outset: “research, training and outreach.”
Myers says, “Perimeter is operating at all these different levels. Research is the goal that brings most of us here, every day, but I’m [also] working with PhD students. That’s one of the most satisfying parts of my job, is working with these young people – we call that the training or the education.”
He adds, “I see that one of the success stories of Perimeter is the outreach, sharing with general public, or with high school or elementary school students. We have a relatively small team but they are very dedicated and they do amazing stuff, here in Waterloo, across Canada, and we have reached out across the world.
“I see that one of the success stories of Perimeter is the outreach, sharing with general public, or with high school or elementary school students.”
“I was just at a lab in Geneva called CERN [Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire], where they have this huge particle collider. I met with the director general there, and I realized our strongest relationship with them is that our outreach team has been working with them for over 10 years. They really have established their own reputation and recognition.”
Myers believes that Perimeter has established an impressive international reputation for all of its work. “It really is a landmark, a resource for the international community. It has really surpassed anybody’s expectations. Something really special happened here. People in Princeton, Harvard, Cal Tech, they know Perimeter, they think of us as colleagues, collaborators, sometimes competitors. To think that we could compete at that level is really, really amazing.”
Myers has stated that as the newly appointed director, his first priority is to consult with his colleagues. He is a big believer in collaboration. And while the number one partner may his undergrad alma mater, the University of Waterloo, the Institute has a relationship with many other collaborators, as well.
He told Exchange, “We’re really a private institute. We stand on our own two feet. We have a very strong relationship with the University of Waterloo, and that was important from day one. But we’re also engaged with a number of universities in southern Ontario. We have one partner on the west coast, the University of Victoria, where there is a joint hire, a fellow who works both here and in Victoria. We have partnerships with a number of universities stretching across the country. But it’s certainly true that Waterloo is one of our strongest partners. They also have a focus on math, engineering and science.”
Myers explains, “Most of our Ph.D. students are officially students at the UW. We’re not a degree-granting institution. It goes both ways – I think they’re very happy to have the enterprise there, this world-class research institute. The students over there get the benefit of coming over here for seminars or courses. We’re also working with them in a number of different ways. In particular, one of our partners is the Institute for Quantum Computing, at UW.”
“People in Princeton, Harvard, Cal Tech, they know Perimeter, they think of us as colleagues, collaborators, sometimes competitors.”
He believes these kinds of relationships can only grow stronger. “I see that partnership is just going to grow in the coming years. In particular, we’re the theory institute, and they have experimentalists and experiments over there. It’s really an exciting time in the Quantum area. They’re really developing. Quantum computing and Quantum information was really an abstract, it was theory for a lot of years. A lot of people were working, and still are working toward the Quantum computer. I’m not saying we’re there, but they have developed platforms that are really exquisite. They can control individual atoms or individual spins in the most sensitive ways. It really sets up for the theorists to be able to propose a lot of interesting experiments.
“I’m hoping that as the systems over there develop, that we’ll be developing strong collaborations between the theorists here and the experimentalists over there.”
He sees huge advantages for his theoretical physics colleagues and students in this close-at-hand connection. Some scientists at Perimeter are working with American universities, and while Myers understands those collaborations – he has done the same thing – he adds, “They are world leaders, so it’s natural that they take their ideas there. But on the other hand, our friends [at UW] are just across the park. I think it would be a lot easier if I had a friend across the park, and I could go and have lunch and talk to him every day as opposed to having people hundreds of miles away. I see a real opportunity.”
Research, pure if not simple
Myers is fierce in his defense of the fundamental purpose of PI. Even though its greatest benefactor is world-renowned entrepreneur Mike Lazaridis, Myers insists that Perimeter’s people do research simply for the sake of learning – not to produce any marketable products. PI, is says, “is not a goal-oriented enterprise” – at least not with monetary goals. “We focus on research, here.”
But he sees real value in what he calls “blue-sky thinking”. “We have to be ready to invest in this kind of blue sky thinking if we’re going to see the successes, the amazing things that we take for granted…. Those ideas, what seem like very remote or esoteric ideas, eventually they are harnessed, and they turn into technology. But it’s on a very, very long time scale.”
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