Book – First Principles

The Crazy Business of Doing Serious Science
by Howard Burton

The story of the founding of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. The book opens with a quote from the brilliant and beloved physicist Richard Feynman: “Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”
What follows is a tale of sheer joy.

Amidst an unlikely assemblage of events, in an even more unlikely place and time, driven by an even more unlikely handful of people, a seed was planted. The events were at the intersection of several lives, economic and academic forces. The place was the quiet little town of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. The time was the final days of the dot com bubble in early 2000. The people were… well… read the book.

This is an intriguing, humorous, personal and touching story, not a boring list of famous names being dropped (which it could easily have been). Be prepared to laugh out loud when you read it. Burton is self-deprecating and honest. One gets the impression that his reasons for writing this book were purely cathartic, to use an ancient Greek reference (as the author often does).

That seed is now growing into a horrifying weed, or a spectacularly beautiful flower, depending on where you sit in academia. It’s not just new science. It’s a new way of doing science. It’s not science treated like a dairy cow by a farmer. It’s science on a pedestal, glinting in the sunlight like Athena.

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