Perimeter Institute opens its doors

The Perimeter Institute in Ontario, Canada. Photo from the Perimeter Institute web site.

On Monday I posted on the Perimeter Institute in Ontario, a theoretical physics enclave started by the man behind the BlackBerry. From the pristine grounds, geometrical buildings, and ubiquitous blackboards I saw on the campus in my virtual tour, I would have guessed that PI was run as a sort of retreat where theoreticians can work on arcane problems far from the mundane cares of the real world.

I was wrong! And what a time to make such an error! The PI has actually thrown open its doors to the public with the Quantum to Cosmos Festival, presented with Canadian television channel TVO. It’s going on right now (October 15-25)—in fact, if you hit their website right this second you might catch the end of Sean B. Carroll’s talk on Charles Darwin, streaming live. (Sean B. Carroll is a biologist and author and is not the same person as Sean M. Carroll, astrophysicist. Sean M. gave a talk last week.) I’m posting now to give readers a chance to tune in live, but I’ll be back in a moment with more information on the festival.

Update: So it looks like Quantum to Cosmos has already presented several really interesting public talks, which you can now watch online—they’ve had Sean M. Carroll on the arrow of time, geek-god Neal Stephenson on science fiction as a window into science, and a session melding dance, music, and a lecture by physicist and author Gino Segre all on German “Renaissance man” Wolfgang von Goethe. Woah.

According to the website, the festival celebrates PI’s 10th year in existence. I’m sort of surprised—and impressed!—to see a place devoted to wild ideas in physics put on such a huge event for the public. But apparently PI’s outreach department has been hard at work on a number of neat projects. They’ve just debuted Alice and Bob in Wonderland, a series of 60-second-long cartoons in which two kids in a chalkboard world innocently ask questions on everything from why the sky isn’t bright at night, since there are stars in every direction, to why we can’t walk through walls—atoms are, after all, mostly empty space. The series’ willingness to tackle oddball questions, instead of expected ones, is the ethos of PI distilled into cartoon form. Who knows, perhaps the cartoon will slyly influence kids to think outside the box—I love it!

The Perimeter Institute is currently under the direction of Neil Turok, a South African physicist who won a TED award in 2008 for his work promoting the next generation of physicists in Africa by founding the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, an institute for postgraduate studies. In an interview on TVO, Turok talks about why the Quantum to Cosmos Festival has been hugely popular with the public, growing up with two anti-apartheid activists as parents, some of the physics questions that are keeping him up at night, and “eureka” moments:

Bravo to the Perimeter Institute for committing a good chunk of time, money ,and effort to making physics accessible, interesting, and fun for the public. Anyone make it to Waterloo for this event? What did you think?

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