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Matin Durrani: November 2010 Archives


By Matin Durrani

The BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute.

It’s a bit of a mouthful, but sooner or later someone – in fact “a scientist of the very highest international calibre” – will have to squeeze that title onto their business card.

That shouldn’t be a problem though as the BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute comes with $4m of funding from the BMO Financial Group, or what used to be the Bank of Montreal. So there ought to be plenty of loose change hanging around for a nice set of cards.

The whopping $4m investment – said to be the biggest in the Perimeter Institute’s 10-year history – will be matched by $4m from the institute’s existing endowment.

The BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute will in fact be just the first of five new top chairs, with the others named in honour of James Clerk Maxwell, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein and Paul Dirac.

In case you missed it, the Perimeter Institute is based in Waterloo, Ontario, and was founded in 1999 by local-boy-made-good Mike Lazaridis, who made his fortune as the founder of Research in Motion – the company that makes Blackberry handheld devices.

The institute, which is keen to attract the brightest and best theorists from around the world, is already undergoing a huge expansion that will see it doubling in size by autumn 2011 with the opening of the Stephen Hawking Centre. Hawking’s already been over as one of the Perimeter’s 20 “distinguished research chairs” after retiring from Cambridge University.

The centre will see Perimeter expanding from its bases in quantum theory, quantum fundamentals, quantum gravity and string theory out into condensed-matter physics, particle physics, cosmology and complex systems.

As for what the BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute will do during their 10-year stint, well, they’ll be “free to engage in investigator-driven research, without limits or mandates”.

But if you’re thinking of applying, don’t. The chair will be “identified through a highly competitive international search, and only scientists of the highest international calibre will be considered”.

Still, it would be nice to think the future chair is reading this right now.

A fusion of fusion

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By Matin Durrani

We’ve had fusion on our minds quite a lot here at Physics World in recent months.

First we published “Hot fusion” – a great feature by Steve Cowley, chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, in which he expresses his optimism that ITER – the huge international fusion experiment being built in France – “will achieve its goal of a burning plasma in the mid-2020s”.

While Cowley examined some of the technical challenges in building ITER, we then hooked up with Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith who outlined ITER’s many political and financial challenges in a special video interview “ITER – a fusion facility worth building”.

Getting a huge multinational project like ITER off the ground is never easy and Sir Chris – who was chair of ITER council until last year – does a good job of making the case that ITER is a project worth pursuing, despite its price tag of €13bn (and rising). “We cannot afford not to develop fusion,” Sir Chris insists.

In a second video interview “Fusion: from here to reality”, I spoke to David Ward from the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in the UK, who’s been involved in the fusion game for 25 years. He talked about some of the challenges in going from ITER to a working fusion plant, dubbed DEMO. What’s interesting is that he predicts not just one version of DEMO, but lots, with China and India potentially leading the way.

But fusion research, like all scientific research, would be nowhere without public funding and public support. In our third fusion video “A passion for fusion: nuclear research and science communication”, former CCFE researcher Melanie Windridge describes some of the challenges in communicating the excitement of fusion research to the public – and to school children in particular.

The Institute of Physics, which publishes, selected Windridge as this year’s Schools Lecturer, a role that has seen her travelling the UK delivering an interactive lecture show about fusion energy to more than 13,000 school students between the ages of 14 and 16.

She talks passionately about her role as a science communicator and offers plenty of practical tips for researchers who want to communicate their work to a more general audience.

Summing up her 2010 lecture tour, Windridge believes that she is lucky with her area of expertise. “Fusion is inherently very interesting and energy is a very emotive subject, so it’s relevant to people’s lives,” she says.