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First Principles: The Crazy Business of Doing Serious Science [Paperback]

Howard Burton
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 8 2009 1554701759 978-1554701759 First Edition 1st Printing

Howard Burton was a freshly-minted physics PhD from the University of Waterloo when a random job query resulted in a strange?albeit fateful?meeting with Research-in-Motion founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis. Mike had a crazy idea: he wanted to fund a state-of-the-art science research facility and bring in the most innovative scientists from around the world. Its mission? To study and probe the most complex, intriguing and fundamental problems of science. Mike was ready to commit $100 million of his own money to get it started. But that wasn?t his only crazy idea.

He wanted Howard to run it.

First Principles is part-biography and part lively rumination on the world?and the world of science in particular?by the engaging physicist and former director of the prestigious Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario. Since its founding in 1999, the Institute has received more than $125 million in government grants, not including the eye-popping sum of $150 million that Mike Lazaridis has donated from his own personal fortune.

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About the Author

HOWARD BURTON was the founding executive director of the Perimeter Institute until his retirement n 2007. He has lectured widely to scientific, government and community groups around the world. He now lives in France.

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Customer Reviews

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5.0 out of 5 stars Just like new Feb. 14 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
They said they were used but were brand new.
This was great because they were to be sent as gifts.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent reading Jan. 4 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A great book. Extremely well written. A service to Canada's national science debate. What is the author doing now in France?
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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes fun; sometimes heavy-handed Dec 2 2009
By Mark S - Published on Amazon.com
Howard Burton's book is for the most part a fun and lively summary of the origins of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Institute Physics written by one of its two founding members; the other is Mike Lazaridis, co-CEO of RIM .

The initial chapters, including Roger Penrose's satirical foreword about the alleged Howard Burton, are especially humorous and animated. What I found most appealing in these chapters, although they do continue throughout the book, are the combination of Burton's self-deprecating humour, his thoughts on the regrettable "cultural divide" between science and philosophy, and his grounded insights on the practice of science ("I watched many of my colleagues publish largely insignificant results to buttress their CVs", p. 31). However, it is the bizarre and life-changing happenstance that occurred with Mike Lazaridis that I still find amazing.

As the book progresses, it becomes more concerned with the administrative details and concerns of the institute: finding the correct mix of scientists and administrators, government funding and lethargy, reconciling ideological rifts in physics, and university politics. And accordingly it loses some of its initial exuberance and humour. This is when the true business of science is discussed. However, it still retains its engaging and informative narrative.

Readers who are knowledge about the world of contemporary physics and its participants will probably find the book very entertaining: Burton names a lot of names. His dig at John Bahcall (pp. 95-96), an astrophysicist at Princeton University, is in stark contrast with Burton's usual reverence towards established physicists. I only wish I were better acquainted with who these people are.

What might have improved the book is a more substantial explanation of some of the ideas (i.e., quantum computing, superstring theory, quantum gravity, etc.) being considered as appropriate topics of study at the institute - although such an approach could have slowed the pace of the account.

Another criticism that I have is that the prose is sometimes marred with awkward, run-on sentences and cliche-ridden expressions (e.g., "That was how we wanted to `make a difference', as the saying goes. But the devil was truly in the details", p.141). These flaws become very apparent during his occasional pedantic rant. His narrative works best when he employs a whimsical, matter-of fact approach, rather than a heavy-handed moralizing one.
4.0 out of 5 stars Dare to Dream! March 20 2010
By L. King - Published on Amazon.com
Howard Burton sets a exuberant tone in this delightful personal odyssey. It starts just before the bubble burst in the dot com boom. Burton describes his background as a PhD physics student with a definite passion for his subject and brings us to the point where he's married, finally graduated with a PhD and comes to the conclusion that he now has to make a living. There are few job options available in his field and one gets the impression that in spite of his passion for his subject Howard, having taken a long time, is not the star material the most University departments might go for, manages to land a job leveraging his math skills as a technical analyst in a New York brokerage firm.

He doesn't really want to do it. So he sends his resume to 20 firms with a plea to "Please help save me from a lucrative career on Wall Street!". ;-)

He gets one answer, but its a beauty. Mike Lazardis of Research In Motion (RIM, Blackberry) calls him up for a a meeting. Howard isn't completely sure about what but soon he finds himself in wonderfully surreal opportunity. Lazardis has 100 million dollars he wants to spend on a pure physics research institution. Howard's job is to refine the concept and then put it together.

One can only admire the commitment of both Burton and Lazardis to the importance of scientific research as a human endeavor. This is not an applied research investment or even a Bell Labs - this is to be blue sky take it where you will quantum physics. Most telling is the section covering the collapse of the .com bubble where RIM's stock tumbles from $250 a share to $20. At first Burton has problems connecting with his boss but when he does Lazardis reassures him that he had conceived of the project when RIM stock was at $15. dollars and he had no intention of backing out.

The rest of the story packs quite a punch.

I really liked the book and think it should appeal to people who are committed to excellence in management, supporters of theoretical research or anyone touched by the success story of Research In Motion.
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