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Neil Geoffrey Turok

Neil Geoffrey Turok: Searching for brilliant young scientists

The director of a Canadian institute wants to attract innovative physicists from around the world and motivate them to make the fundamental discoveries of the coming decades

Léo RamosIn 2002, the South-African politician Ben Turok, 75, called his son Neil Turok, a professor of cosmology at Cambridge University, England, from Capetown, to ask him to help improve university education in Africa.  Then 44, Neil began to develop an idea for a new model for academic institutions. One year later, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) was established. The interdisciplinary institute was founded in Muizenberg, near Capetown, where undergraduate students from all over Africa take short courses, normally lasting a year, focusing on mathematical analysis of scientific data from any field.

Neil Turok’s boldness led him to be invited, five years later, to direct the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, one of the most innovative theoretical physics centers, located in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Established in 1999 with a donation of $100 million from Mike Lazaridis, founder of the mobile telephone company Blackberry, and maintained through private donations and the Canadian government, the institute recruits young, enthusiastic physicists from around the world. Six undergraduate students from South America were selected from the 100 participants in a workshop held in July 2016 to pursue a joint master’s degree through Perimeter and the São Paulo State University Institute for Theoretical Physics (IFT-Unesp).

“We need exceptional people, with completely different ways of seeing things,” says Turok, a specialist in theoretical models on the origin of the universe. In 1996, he and his group published a prediction of the properties of background cosmic radiation that was confirmed by the WMAP satellite 10 years later. A co-author of the popular science book Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang (2006), Turok was in São Paulo in November 2016 to participate in an international symposium promoted by the South American Institute for Fundamental Research (SAIFR), which operates jointly with the IFT and the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in São Paulo. After his presentation, he talked to Pesquisa FAPESP about his strategies to attract and motivate the best physicists in the world, in the hope of attaining remarkable advances.

Undergraduate degree in physics from Churchill College, University of Cambridge, and doctorate in physics from Imperial College, both in the United Kingdom
Physics professor at Princeton University from 1994 to 1997. Professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University from 1997 to 2008. Director of the Perimeter Institute since 2008
Scientific production
219 articles, H-index: 69

You have said several times, in other interviews, that your biggest dream is to help reveal the next Einstein. How?
This is my life goal: I want to create a great environment where the next Einstein will come and get what he or she needs to start the next revolution in physics. My work and that of everyone at Perimeter is to create the environment in which a brilliant young scientist can one day say: “Aha! I know what is missing!” In 10 or 20 years, I’m sure I’ll look back and think, “I helped X make this discovery.” And that single discovery will justify everything. How did we discover the theory of relativity? The concept is extremely simple once you understand it, but almost impossible to imagine before Einstein discovered it. We need exceptional people, with completely different ways of seeing things. I tell all Perimeter employees: “We will treat everyone, from the most senior to the most junior, as if they could be the next Einstein.” New ideas are likely to come from new communities, which bring new approaches, freshness and enthusiasm, which are essential. Investing in young people trying to solve the most difficult problems will result in an almost guaranteed return. And these young people will become successful intellectuals and physicists and will be role models for all of society. In a way, the achievements of an Einstein are symbolic and show what humans can achieve. Seeing a Brazilian do this would be incredible; it would make everyone proud. Scientists should be as valued by society as athletes and musicians. The difference between them is that scientific discoveries affect society forever.

Before going to Perimeter, you established the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. What was that like?
My parents, Mary Butcher and Ben Turok, were part of a group of political activists against the apartheid regime and often ran the risk of death. They were arrested, when I was still little, and we had to leave the country. I had a difficult childhood as a refugee in England. But they were committed to a good cause with a long-term view, and what happened in 1994 with the first general elections in South Africa proved that they were right. My parents’ political example was central to my attitude towards science. In 2002, when I was a professor at Cambridge, my parents, at that time members of parliament in South Africa, called me asking if I could do anything to raise the level of instruction on the African continent. I said I did not know what I could do; I was a cosmologist studying the Big Bang. They insisted. I then had the idea of establishing a Pan-African institute that bright students from anywhere in Africa could attend, for free, for a year. We would bring the best teachers in the world to visit the institute, each for three weeks, to teach, discuss and work with the students. To help me figure out how to do this in practice, I got help from my brother, Fred Turok, a businessman and manager of one of the UK’s largest gym chains, LA Fitness.

How did your brother help you?
He gave me valuable advice on how to make a business plan and raise funds. Then, in a magical moment, I realized, as a theoretical physicist, that planning is a theoretical exercise. You get an idea and start planning how to make that idea work, calculate how much money you need, try to anticipate all the risks, and put everything on paper more and more rigorously until you reach the point where you can convince any investor that this is the best investment they can make. I spent a year planning and testing ideas with my colleagues until I understood why traditional systems fail. One million undergraduate students receive their diplomas every year in Africa, but schools offer very traditional courses and do not prepare them for the job market. It is very rare for a university department to offer a course in data analysis, which is a necessary skill in all sciences. I then thought of making this the basis of the institute in Africa. When students arrive, the first thing we teach them is how to use a computer well, and they learn the fundamentals of how to program and analyze data. Then we have problem-solving courses. If someone gives you a new problem, do you say “this is not my area,” or do you take a look? We created a master’s degree course focusing on the skills that young scientists need in practice, especially related to data. It was a success.

And the professors, what did they think?
The professors were also excited about contributing to this interdisciplinary approach. Free thinking, problem solving, new approaches. Establishing new academic institutions gives us the opportunity to revisit the ideas we take for granted and go beyond them. In places in Africa without fixed phone lines, they started using cell phones. They did not need to install telephone lines in Africa, they skipped that stage. We can do the same thing intellectually. Don’t make students learn a ton of classical physics. Put them right on the frontier of knowledge so they can do creative work now. If they discover that they need to learn something, they will stop and learn or find someone who knows the subject. We want to turn young people into knowledge entrepreneurs. The best science today is done by people with a spirit of adventure, not by people undergoing traditional training.

Perimeter Turok celebrates with students at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Senegal, in 2011Perimeter

Do you have success stories?
Many. Let me give you an example: Martial Loth Ndeffo Mbah. He is from Cameroon, an African country very strong in mathematics, partly because of the French colonial legacy, but also because of the local culture, which values intellectual work. This fellow came to us wanting to do pure math and learned epidemiology. Because he had a strong social conscience, he realized that he could use mathematics to model diseases and tell the government which public health interventions would be most effective. He did his doctorate at Cambridge in mathematical biology and today works as an associate professor at Yale, and is an adviser to West African countries on the Ebola virus crisis. When the outbreak of Ebola occurred, he was immediately called to West Africa and began to collect clinical data on the effects of treatments. His work had a huge positive effect. Martial Loth is a very religious person and, since his church works in poor neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, he comes to Brazil every year as a volunteer to teach children.

Perimeter is famous for supporting bold approaches. How does it do this?
In June 2016, on Perimeter Day, researchers at the institute presented their work to colleagues in an informal setting, promoting sincere discussion between friends. The theme was quantum gravitation, the sacred chalice of physics. Each researcher—not only the experts, but also those from other areas—presented his or her perspective. As soon as each finished talking, the audience responded, indicated what was wrong, inconsistent or incomplete. I was very pleased. Elsewhere, they generally reinforce one another’s ideas. This prevents progress by reinforcing a restricted view. I am very critical of most of the lines of research we pursue in theoretical physics, including many of the ideas in cosmology that I have worked with. Our theories are not good enough. They are nowhere near the level of the ideas of James Maxwell [1831-1879], Max Planck [1858-1947], Einstein [1879-1955] or Paul Dirac [1902-1984]. We have to look for powerful theories that are indisputably proven by experimental data, and this is very, very difficult. Most of my colleagues ask me to give them more time, but we cannot wait. We do not have time for nonsense and non-constructive speculation.

In 2012, Perimeter sponsored a series of highly successful funny animations on YouTube, called Minute Physics, produced by former student Henry Reich.
We accepted Henry because he was an interesting guy. We liked the reasons that he gave when applying to our master’s program: he was curious, he wanted to learn more, he liked movies, he did not know if he would do physics, but he was excited about it. At Perimeter he worked on a research project with physicist Lee Smolin, but at one point he decided to leave and study film. He started Minute Physics in his spare time and soon dropped out of film school to work full time on his YouTube channel. It was then that we hired him back, to stay for a year, developing Minute Physics, because it is a fantastic service to the world. We were able to do this because we wanted to explore our freedom to do things that others are not doing or should do, such as sharing our excitement about physics, what we are learning about the Universe, with our audience. I try to summarize what Perimeter is doing in a small slogan: access to excellence. We must strive for excellence, but in a way that allows society to feel connected.

How do you connect with other social groups?
Waterloo, Canada, is a unique community. It has less than 100,000 inhabitants, but everyone loves mathematics and physics. Every month, the Perimeter Institute offers a public lecture on science. We have brought Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose and other gurus. The 600 tickets for each presentation sell out as soon as we put them up for sale on the website. Waterloo was a town of small farmers until the 1950s. At that time the insurance companies in Toronto, the closest big city, began to move there, to reduce costs. But the insurance companies needed mathematicians, since their business is based on risk calculations. These companies and others decided to found the University of Waterloo, a different public institution, focusing on mathematics and its applications. To create the math department, they hired some members of the team of code-breakers led by British mathematician Alan Turing [1912-1954], who deciphered the code used by the Germans to transmit secret messages during World War II. The work of these researchers and their students has led to the development of the cryptography that allows cell phones to function securely. From the beginning, the university was the best in encryption and its mathematical applications. A Canadian Silicon Valley developed around the university, with about 2,500 high-tech companies. The BlackBerry cell phone company started in Waterloo, created by a former Waterloo student, Mike Lazaridis, the founder of the Perimeter Institute. He donated $100 million to establish Perimeter in 2000.

The Canadian government also funds the institute, right?
Since the institute began operating in 2001, the Canadian federal government and the province of Ontario have each contributed $10 million annually. Meanwhile, we raised money from private donors and invested the funds. Our current endowment is $320 million and we expect it to increase to $400 million over the next 10 years. So, over a decade, spending 5% of assets plus the $20 million we receive from the government each year, we will have an annual budget of $40 million. We are a non-profit and we are not interested in intellectual property. If we discover something, we will take the same attitude as the inventors of the world wide web. They made it public so that everyone would benefit from it. I believe that, one day, we will be able to get private donors to pay for the institute’s growth. Theoretical physics doesn’t cost much. Basically just salaries. In the long run this type of investment is guaranteed, since a breakthrough in theoretical physics can change everything. Some colleagues at Perimeter work on quantum computing, working out ways to correct errors in calculations performed using subatomic particles. It’s a challenging task, but when it finally works it will be the foundation for the 21st century’s computing industry.

Perimeter Students discuss problems proposed at Perimeter in groupsPerimeter

How did Perimeter grow?
The institute hired its first two professors in 2001. In 2008, when I took over, there were seven. Now there are 23 full time, and another 13 shared with other institutions. We feel that it must be that way, hiring slowly, no hurry, one or two a year, inviting only exceptional people. When we reached a critical mass of 10 fantastic professors, we began to attract the best students, and quality multiplied. If you want to establish a spectacular center of excellence, follow the example of start-up companies. We need entrepreneurship applied to fundamental science, to follow unconventional research topics and develop completely new directions. True progress in science comes from audacious ideas. Ninety-nine percent of them will turn out wrong, but occasionally one of these creative ideas will be on-target and transform everything. Quantum mechanics, for example, is a crazy idea. But without it, physics would not have progressed.

How do you manage the institute to create an unconventional environment?
When I became director in 2008, there was no graduate program at the institute. I founded a different kind of master’s program, because I had already seen all the things that Princeton, Cambridge and other excellent universities do wrong. We did marketing and strategy research, like large companies do, to recruit the brightest, most excited and enterprising students in the world. And we recruit them from different countries, with different cultures, ensuring a good proportion of women. Then we give them very special support. At Perimeter students have three excellent meals each day, a gym, wonderful music concerts, and a very lively atmosphere. When they arrive, they feel they have to do the best because they feel it is a top university. The dormitory building has a common room with blackboards, where they discuss ideas all the time. Each morning they attend classes and in the afternoon they work on problems in groups. Their professors really take care of them, every day, watching, helping, and challenging them with new problems. They really feel they are a part of the research environment and interact with professors all the time. Today, 68% of our invitations are accepted by students. It is one of the largest percentages in the world. This is not because our professors are more brilliant than those at other schools. This is because all other institutions have very traditional programs that have not changed, have not modernized.

And how do you attract researchers?
In 2010 we established the Distinguished Visiting Research Chair. In physics, someone who is invited to visit an institution presents a seminar, but only receives reimbursement for expenses rather than receiving a fee. We do it differently. We told the most experienced theoretical physicists in the world, “Please come, stay with us for three or four weeks a year, and we will pay you for each week.” It is a fraction of their salary, but they felt respected, especially after Stephen Hawking was the first to accept our offer and receive the title of Visiting Professor. Now we have 52 of the most important physicists in the world visiting Perimeter each year. It does not cost much to bring them here for four weeks. They come, talk with students and teach classes. Most of them simply love to teach all day. And they come back.

You maintain excellence by convincing the best people in the world to spend time at your institution.
Exactly, you need to renew all the time. No one can be complacent. This is one of my challenges. I tell our faculty that the greatest danger for the institute is to become self-satisfied. We cannot relax. Each of us needs to keep our colleagues on their feet, disagree with them. We are evaluated every year. Each of us interviews our colleagues: is your research ambitious enough? Are you really pushing the boundaries of your field of research? Maybe you should drop this approach because the result is very predictable. Go and take a chance. We think you can do better. If someone criticizes your work, you do not take that as an insult. Another way to keep everyone on their toes is one of my Perimeter slogans: There are no groups here.

Could you explain?
When I arrived at Perimeter, everyone was in research groups. “We are the quantum gravitation group,” they said. “There are no groups,” I told them, “here we are all in the same boat.” The professor does not choose the postdoctoral researchers. The institute collectively recruits them, under the understanding that they are not working for anyone specifically. They are independent researchers, free to do whatever they want. They can work with the faculty, but they will never be used to do the faculty’s jobs. Postdoctoral researchers themselves can invite visitors or travel wherever they want. The postdoctoral researchers and senior professors are treated in a very similar manner. And it works because when we give them all this support and freedom, they understand that our expectations are high, that we assume they will do something really interesting. Evidence of this is that four of our postdoctoral researchers have already won the New Horizons Award [a $100,000 prize for promising young researchers, established in 2013 by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, in the United States]. Aside from Perimeter and Stanford University, no other institution has won this award more than once. The director of Breakthrough called me last week to ask me how we achieved this. The answer is that we are looking for unusual young people, doing something brilliant that is not yet fully recognized. Nine out of 10 young researchers do amazing things. Meanwhile, major universities pursue popular post-docs, those who are prominent at conferences and publish many articles a year. And thus they do not actually encourage young researchers to do original work. We are the opposite because we know that it is the people who take the greatest risks that make the big breakthroughs and win big prizes.

PerimeterWhat do you do in cosmology?
I try to understand the origin of the Universe. We now have observations which we can use to test theories with precision. The future of the Universe seems to be extremely simple, dominated by dark energy.

What have been your main contributions?
I made predictions that were confirmed by observations. In particular, the correlation between the polarization [a property of electromagnetic radiation that causes it to oscillate in preferred directions] and the temperature of the cosmic background radiation. I also predicted independent evidence of dark energy [aside from the main evidence, which is the accelerated separation of distant galaxies], recently confirmed by observations [the so-called integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect, according to which small variations in the frequencies of cosmic background radiation are related to the distribution of clusters of galaxies and are influenced by dark energy]. I was among the first to investigate the idea that relics from the time of great unification [a period in which the fundamental forces of physics were just one force, shortly after the Big Bang] could have survived to this day. I proposed several theoretical scenarios to explain the Big Bang. One is the idea that we may be living in a bubble in an inflated universe. Another was the idea that the Big Bang could have been the result of a collision between two universes. The third is the scenario of the cyclical universe, which dies and reforms continually.

How do you see the future of cosmology?
With great enthusiasm. Observations have taught us more in the last four years than in the last three decades. Twentieth-century theories are failing everywhere. Nature is simpler and more unified than we ever imagined.