Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

Lee Smolin, Perimeter Institute and University of Waterloo
Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics opened its doors this past September in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Pi, as we call it, is an independent, privately endowed institute, which will specialize in fields having to do with fundamental physics. This naturally includes several fields in which relativists work including quantum gravity, cosmology and string theory.

This year Pi opened with 3 researchers (long term positions equivalent to faculty), two associates, who have appointments also in a new Institute of Quantum Computing (IQC) founded simultaneously at the University of Waterloo, four postdocs and 5 students. (For the names and much other information please see The scientific staff is being recruited primarily from outside Canada. Next year we expect to have around 7 researchers, 10 postdocs, plus visitors and students. There is also an active visitors and seminar programs, with an average of 2 new visitors arriving each week (for details see

There is already quite a lively atmosphere, and the visitor to Pi will usually find several informal discussions and collaborations under way throughout the building. In January alone we had seminars by Stephon Alexander (London), Giovanni Amelino-Camelia (Rome), Daniel Gottesman (Berkeley), Ted Jacobson (Maryland), Robert Laughlin (Stanford), Seth Major (Hamilton), Hendryk Pfieffer (Cambridge) and Maxim Pospelov (Victoria), who presented their work on a range of topics in quantum gravity, quantum phase transitions, black hole physics, Planck scale phenomenology and quantum information theory.

The plan is to grow over six years to 40 resident scientists, plus visitors, students, associates and affiliates (the latter are people whose primary appointments are in nearby universities.) The fields of emphasis for this first stage are quantum gravity, including but not limited to string theory and foundations of quantum mechanics including quantum information theory. In later years other fields of theoretical physics will be added.

A beautiful new building is planned, designed by the architectural firm of Saucier and Perrott, who were chosen after a competition. The building was designed after extensive consultations with scientists and we believe will provide the most hospitable and welcoming atmosphere that exists for doing theoretical physics, in a visually stunning setting (see ). The building will be on the side of Silver Lake, next to Waterloo Park, and a short walk from both the University of Waterloo and the newly invigorated downtown core of the city of Waterloo. While Pi will be primarily a residential institute, there will be conferences, workshops and the like held in the building, as well as cultural activities such as concerts and lectures on science for the public. The first Pi public lecture was given in October by Roger Penrose, and drew an audience that was twice the capacity of the lecture hall.

Presently we are located in a beautiful old red stone building in the center of Waterloo. The building features a large informal interaction area with, we believe, the only bar in the world with wall-to-wall black boards (called by popular acclaim the hbar).

Waterloo is in the heart of the fastest growing region in Canada, and is a center for high tech industry as well as home to two universities. Those of us who have just moved here have been very pleased to find ourselves in a sophisticated, youthful, growing and diverse city. Toronto, which is one of the most exciting cities culturally in North America, and is also the world’s most ethnically diverse city, is a bit more than an hour away by car, bus and train. The Toronto International airport is 45-50 minutes away.

The Institute was founded by Mike Lazaridis, founder and co-Ceo of Research in Motion and several friends, who are contributing an endowment of $120 million (Canadian). The Institute is governed primarily by its scientific staff, with oversight from a Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) of renowned senior theoretical physicists. As in private universities, there is a board of directors, but scientific decisions are primarily the purview of the scientific staff with oversight by the SAC. While independent, the institute has negotiated already or has under discussion a complex set of relationships with the University of Waterloo and other universities in Southern Ontario and Canada. These relationships include cross appointment of researchers, associates, affiliates and joint projects. The internal scientific governance is democratic and non-hierarchical; there is no scientific director and there are no heads of groups. While this condition was mandated by the founders, it was also discussed extensively among the scientists and advisory committee, and a number of models and examples were studied before arriving at the present structure. We believe that history shows that the scientific institutes and departments that maintain themselves at the highest level of quality for the longest time are those run on relatively non-hierarchical and democratic lines.

But just as important as money, bricks, offices, networks and computers is spirit, philosophy and culture. We are designing Pi with the hope that it will remain perpetually youthful, dynamic and flexible, a home to important research on the frontiers of physics, even when it is no longer young. Pi scientists are chosen to be not only scientific leaders in their fields, but dynamic, risk taking, open and ambitious people, who are interested in work done outside their specializations and are open to new ideas and competing research programs. They must also be people who respect other people, communicate easily and honestly, prefer working in a non-hierarchical and democratic setting and are interested in being involved in the adventure of building a new scientific institute.

Of course, in the end, the only measure of success of a new institute is the quality of the science that is done there, sustained over many years. At present, all that can be said is that Pi is off to a very good start, and we hope to see and host many members of the gravitational physics community here over the next few years. Watch this space.

For more information regarding seminars and visitors and information about postdoctoral, visiting and long term positions see

Jorge Pullin 2002-02-11