The cosmologist Neil Turok will be the next executive director of Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, taking over in October. Turok, who is currently Chair of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge in the UK, described the move as the “opportunity of a lifetime” and told that he plans to make the institute “the leading centre in the world for theoretical physics”.

The Perimeter Institute (PI) was founded in 1999 by Mike Lazaridis, chief executive of Research in Motion — the company that makes Blackberry wireless handheld devices. Located in Waterloo, Ontario, and home to more than 60 resident researchers, the institute focuses on fundamental questions in areas such as cosmology, particle physics and quantum gravity. Its first executive director Howard Burton, left suddenly in June 2007 and the Canadian theoretical physicist Robert Myers has been acting as interim director while the institute looked for a new head.

More international perspective

Turok told that one of his goals will be to give the institute a more “international perspective” by attracting “ the most brilliant students and researchers from around the world”.

He will work with local universities to expand the institute’s graduate teaching, making it “the best graduate programme in fundamental theoretical physics”. Turok also has plans for a “pre-PhD programme”, which would invite undergraduate students from all over the world and expose them to how theoretical physics is done. “Often undergraduates are not prepared for doing research, they are mostly prepared for passing exams”, he said.

Turok is looking forward to the intellectual freedom that the institute offers. “What Mike [Lazaridis] has done is to bring a breath of fresh air into theoretical physics”, he said.

Importance of basic science

Lazaridis himself told “The more I got to know Dr Turok, the more conviction I had that he was the right person to take Perimeter to the next level”. “We share deep convictions in the importance of basic science, the importance of funding basic science, and the importance of philanthropy in promoting basic science for the advancement of mankind”, he added.

Born in South Africa in 1958, Turok founded the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town, which supports the development of mathematics and science research and education across Africa. In addition to his work on the polarization of the cosmic microwave background, Turok has also developed a cyclic model of the universe with Paul Steinhardt at Princeton University.

Turok’s colleague at Cambridge, Stephen Hawking, said of his appointment: “The combination of Neil and PI is brilliant and holds great promise for the future”.