I’m visiting the Perimeter Institute this week. For the non-physicists in the audience, Perimeter is a very prestigious institute of theoretical physics, founded by the founder of BlackBerry. It’s quite swanky. Some first impressions:
- This occurred to me several times: this place is what the Simons Center wants to be when it grows up.
- You’d think that the building is impossible to navigate because it was designed by a theoretical physicist, but Freddy Cachazo assured us that he actually had to get the architect to tone down the impossibly ridiculous architecture. Looks like the only person crazier than a physicist is an artist.
- Having table service at an institute café feels very swanky at first, but it’s actually a lot less practical than cafeteria-style dining. I think the Simons Center Café has it right on this one, even if they don’t quite understand the concept of hurricane relief (don’t have a link for that joke, but I can explain if you’re curious).
- Perimeter has some government money, but much of its funding comes from private companies and foundations, particularly Research in Motion (or RIM, now BlackBerry). Incidentally, I’m told that PeRIMeter is supposed to be a reference to RIM.
What interests me is that you don’t see this sort of thing (private support) very often in other fields. Private donors will found efforts to solve some real-world problem, like autism or income inequality. They rarely fund basic research*. When they do fund basic research, it’s usually at a particular university. Something like Perimeter, a private institute for basic research, is rather unusual. Perimeter itself describes its motivation as something akin to a long-range strategic investment, but I think this also ties back to the concept of patronage.
Like art, physics has a history of being a fashionable thing for wealthy patrons to support, usually when the research topic is in line with their wider interests. Newton, for example, re-cast his research in terms of its implications for an understanding of the tides to interest the nautically-minded King James II, despite the fact that he couldn’t predict the tides any better than anyone else in his day. Much like supporting art, supporting physics can allow someone’s name to linger on through history, while not running a risk of competing with others’ business interests like research in biology or chemistry might.
*basic research is a term scientists use to refer to research that isn’t made with a particular application in mind. In terms of theoretical physics, this often means theories that aren’t “true”.