Books and Arts

Nature 461, 477 (24 September 2009) | doi:10.1038/461477a; Published online 23 September 2009

Howard's end at Perimeter

João Magueijo1

BOOK REVIEWEDFirst Principles: The Crazy Business of Doing Serious Science

by Howard Burton

Key Porter Books: 2009. 288 pp. Can$24.95

Howard's end at Perimeter


Howard Burton outside the Perimeter Institute.

The goal of First Principles is good: Howard Burton, founding director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, relates the setting up of the institute in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, following a donation exceeding Can$100 million by Mike Lazaridis, creator of the BlackBerry, in 1999. But the book's self-congratulatory tone is a major snag. As reality increasingly conflicts with hype, Burton's account evolves into a sad tale.

The institute's aim was to "make waves, big waves", and it got off to a promising start. Burton — a youthful outsider who had only just finished his physics PhD went about his job with maverick flair, challenging the scientific establishment, attacking its tribalism and allergy to innovation. Here was an opportunity to do things differently: to promote originality, to flatten hierarchy and empower the young researchers actively driving the field. It sounded utopian, but it was worth a try.

Unfortunately, reality failed to comply with Burton's plan. The best days of this haven of free-thinking came while it was still a 'theoretical' theoretical physics institute — before the scientists arrived. The anecdotes Burton narrates in the chapter 'The Trouble with Physicists' ring hilariously true. But there was also a fatal flaw in Perimeter's concept — scientists tend to define 'originality' as what they personally do. Soon the institute's quest for novelty became hijacked by the agendas of the field's usual culprits, and Burton himself came under attack from them.

"You don't go into the woods to find a lumberjack to run a scientific institute," one senior Canadian physicist jibed, commenting on Burton's past as a 'failed' physicist. "Why did he hire all those losers?" asked another when faced with Burton's first batch of appointments. In some circles Perimeter became known as the 'institute of lost causes' in response to Burton's promotion of off-the-beaten-track research, and he and his staff were called cranks.

Given Burton's intent of "poking the establishment in the eye", he might have expected some abuse. But in such cases the best strategy is to stick to one's guns. Alas, Burton is not so thick-skinned. He reveals himself as the insecure country cousin awed by the sophistication of established scientists and their fancy dinner parties. He swayed towards them, minutely measuring the distance between the riverbanks lest he offend the mainstream. Burton tried to replicate the US establishment in Canada, but he was often outbid and exploited by opportunists who used Perimeter as a trampoline to boost their US careers.

By the time Perimeter matured, five years later, the divide between the quixotic first hires and the new wave was painfully evident. The openness of the early days was replaced by Princeton-style hush-hush and invitation-only meetings. The idealists openly confessed that they wished they could find another benefactor, to "start anew and this time do it right". Something had gone wrong: the sought utopia had become a dystopia.

Scientific originality has become big business: being anti-establishment sounds great. Yet few want to take the risks necessary to achieve it. Originality is encouraged in public pronouncements only to be punished when practical decisions are made. Perhaps Perimeter's tale proves that there is no recipe for original science: it happens anarchically and by accident, in spite of, rather than because of, scientific institutions.

Burton had his heart in the right place at the outset and we should have some sympathy for him. And Perimeter was a success on many fronts: the building is gorgeous, its bistro is outstanding, the administrative staff enlightened. But the institute has failed to attract good students; its outreach activities have become uninspired; its rebellious streak is now all but gone. Our sympathy for the director dissipates when he fails to shoulder any blame. Add to this the book's purple prose and weak iconoclasm and First Principles is bound to irritate as much as disappoint.

Eventually Perimeter became a scientific institute just like any other. In 2007, Burton left.

See also News Feature, page 462.

  1. João Magueijo is professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College London, Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BZ, UK. His forthcoming book is A Brilliant Darkness, about physicist Ettore Majorana. He was a visiting scientist at Perimeter in 2005–07.

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