First Principles: The Crazy Business of Doing Serious Science Paperback – Apr 8 2009
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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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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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