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Everyday science

Physics philanthropist on the silver screen, guitar-slinging astrophysicist is knighted

17 Mar 2023 Hamish Johnston

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is a world-leading research centre that is in Waterloo, Canada. It is no coincidence that Waterloo is also home of BlackBerry Limited (previously Research in Motion) – which is possibly the most meteoric company in Canadian history. The connection is that BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis put up $170 million to launch Perimeter in 2000. He also stumped up $100 million in 2002 for the Institute of Quantum Computing at the nearby University of Waterloo, where Lazaridis had studied electrical engineering and computer science.

Now, the story of how Lazaridis made his vast fortune is coming to a cinema near you. The film BlackBerry tells the story of how he and Douglas Fregin developed the eponymous proto-smartphone and how they recruited the businessperson Jim Balsillie to sell it to the world.

The BlackBerry was the must-have gadget of the pre-smartphone 2000s because it offered secure email services. It became so addictive to some that it was dubbed the “CrackBerry” and its security meant that it was favoured by a wide range of users from corporate executives to drug dealers.

Shining moment

The film is released in Canada in May and stars Jay Baruchel as Lazaridis and Glenn Howerton as Balsillie. It is directed by Matt Johnson, who also plays Fregin. Speaking to the CBC, Johnson said “At one point in time [Research in Motion] controlled 50% of the cellphone market. There was a shining moment, when a Canadian company had a larger control of the cellphone market than Apple does now.”

That glory began to fade in 2007, when Apple launched the iPhone and the era of the smartphone got well underway. While BlackBerry tried to compete with smartphone makers like Apple and Samsung, the device faded away and today BlackBerry Limited develops cybersecurity software.

The UK’s favourite guitar-playing astrophysicist has received a knighthood from King Charles. Queen founder Brian May bagged the honour for his “services to music and charity”. Most famous for his soaring guitar solos, May started a PhD in astrophysics at Imperial College London way back in 1971 but abandoned it when his musical career began to take off. More than three decades later, he completed his doctorate – which is called A survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud. I wonder what he is most proud of, being Sir Brian or being Dr May?

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