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First Principles: The Crazy Business of Doing Serious Science Paperback – Apr 8 2009

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Key Porter Books; First Edition 1st Printing edition (April 8 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1554701759
  • ISBN-13: 978-1554701759
  • Product Dimensions: 1.9 x 14.6 x 21.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 322 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #218,642 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

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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Format: Paperback
Mike Lazaridis invented the BlackBerry, the first smart phone, and made a ton of money. He wanted to indulge his love of physics so he put up one hundred million of his own money to to this end. A chance letter from Howard Burton led to a meeting and from there things really took off. Howard was then a fresh physics PhD with poor job prospects. Physics, like other academic field has far too few jobs to absorb the available talent. Far too few physics jobs, that is, but Wall Street was a different matter. Howard had reluctantly resigned himself to a financial future. Lazaridis offered Howard a job. Doing what? Thinking? Thinking what? How to spend his money on theoretical physics. All of this is laid out in First Principles, a book of rare charm, often laugh-out-loud funny, and full of remarkable details that provide insight into how an institute can be created and how academic life works.

Having a huge whack of money helps, but there was still much to do. What was involved? Choosing a name: The Perimeter Institute. Talking to people at other institutes, e.g., Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, about how to do it? What works and what doesn’t? Setting up an advisory board, making some initial appointments. This was all a very delicate business. The people chosen will set the tone; they will also signal to the wold what to expect from this upstart institute in Waterloo, Ontario. Big egos are involved and they come with strong opinions. The provincial and federal governments had to be coaxed into strong financial support. There were various other matters to be settled, such as the relation with the University of Waterloo. And, of course, a building was required.
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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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By Joseph L. Rotman on 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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 2 reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Sometimes fun; sometimes heavy-handed Dec 2 2009
By Mark S - Published on
Format: Paperback
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.
Dare to Dream! March 20 2010
By L. King - Published on
Format: Paperback
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.