Institute attracts top scholars

Weekender

By THOMAS HUKAHU
LAST week, I shared about a university that offers tuition free programme of studies in computer science and business studies.
The University of the People also operates without a campus – students from all over the world study with it by doing the courses in the programmes online. The only fees that students pay is about $60-$200, which are the assessment fees. Otherwise, the students learn the different courses on offer for free.
Other top universities in the world have also been reaching out to more students and scholars by offering different types of study programmes. Some are recording their lectures and lecture notes and posting them online.
In today’s article I will tell you about an institute that is attracting top theoretical physics experts and students from all over the world to study and conduct research there.
The institute has also attracted some of the best brains in the science to work and educate the scholars who want to study there.
The Blackberry connection
According to Wikipedia, the Perimeter for Theoretical Physics (PITP) is an independent research centre in foundational theoretical physics located in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. It was founded in 1999 and its founding and major benefactor is Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist Mike Lazaridis.
Lazaridis happens to be a co-inventor of Blackberry, the first smartphone that enabled people to send emails from a small portable device to computers or other devices like another smartphone. (This technology has since been adopted and/or adapted by other firms like Samsung, Nokia and Huawei to manufacture their own smartphones, devices that are now flooding the market all over the world.)
Lazaridis is known for using his own pool of money earned from his company’s products to fund research institutions like PITP and the University of Waterloo where he studied electrical engineering in the early 1980s. He has been described as someone who is a “passionate advocate for the power of basic science to improve and transform the world”.

Prof Neil Turok, a cosmologist, headed PITP from 2008-2019.
Jacob Barnett, a child prodigy, entered the PITP to do a master’s degree in theoretical physics at the age of 15. – Pictures borrowed

Why theoretical physics?
Before we continue learning about PITP, let me clarify theoretical physics the subject, which is a specific field in the broad science of physics.
According to Wikipedia, theoretical physics is a branch of physics that employs mathematical models and abstractions of physical objects and systems to rationalise, explain and predict natural phenomena. This is in contrast to experimental physics, which uses experimental tools to probe these phenomena.
Some of the world’s famous theoretical physicists include Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. (Galilei, Newton and Hawking are also known in the scientific world as mathematicians because theoretical physicists use a lot of advanced concepts in mathematics to describe what they observe in the physical world, whether it is the motion of sub-atomic particles whirling about a nucleus or the stars roving around the centre of a faraway galaxy.)
In PITP’s website, the institute explains why it chose to major in theoretical physics and not just another science or technological field. It states: “Theoretical physics is a cornerstone of modern quantitative science, on which so much else rests. It is perhaps the highest-impact, lowest-cost area of basic research. The field advances our fundamental understanding of the universe, and seeds the technologies of tomorrow. Solar cells, computers, wireless technologies, diagnostic imaging – they are all rooted in breakthroughs made by theoretical physicists.”

Headed by a top scholar
A top institution scouts for the best minds in the world to run it as well as enrich the learning experiences of students who attend it.
From 2008 until 2019, PITP’s executive director was Prof Neil Turok, a well-known cosmologist who was born in South Africa. (Cosmology is a branch of astronomy concerned with the studies of the origin and evolution of the universe, from the Big Bang to today and on into the future.)
Turok has worked with the late Hawking and for some time the Chair of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge. Hawking has also visited and lectured in PITP.
I have written about Turok more than a year ago in this supplement. I told of how, as a Cambridge professor, he founded the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in South Africa in 2003. AIMS is a postgraduate educational centre supporting the development of mathematics and science across the continent.
In 2008, Turok was awarded the TED prize for his work in setting up AIMS and promoting mathematics in Africa. His talk on TED is very interesting in that he made the bold statement that “the next Albert Einstein could be African”. (You can watch Turok’s presentation if you visit TED’s website. You can also watch other theoretical physicists present their ideas on different topics in TED events.)

Brilliant young mind chose PITP
In 2013, a teen prodigy’s progress as a student caught the attention of the world.
It was reported by various media outlets (including www.thestar.com) that Jacob Barnett was then a child prodigy with an IQ of 170 – higher than Einstein’s estimate IQ.
The report said Barnett was diagnosed with autism at age two and didn’t speak for a year and a half until he asked a question at a lecture on astronomy. By nine, he was writing his own physics theories, an exercise that had him covering his home’s windows with complex formulas.
The boy who reads physics papers for fun chose to enter PITP at the age of 15 to do his master’s degree. He is the youngest person to have been accepted to the programme.

A master’s programme and scholarship
PITP offers a one-year master’s degree in theoretical physics. It is designed to bring highly qualified and top graduate students to the institute to delve into the wonders and mysteries of the atoms or the stars and galaxies.
On its website, PITP states that each year approximately 30 adventurous and exceptional students from countries around the world are admitted to the PSI programme.
Full scholarships are available to cover tuition, meals, accommodations, and other costs.
You can check the institution’s website for more information regarding that programme and the scholarship.

Next few articles
In the next few articles in this supplement in the coming weeks, I will tell you a bit about good education stories that I have read in past years.
It is my hope that you will learn from those stories (as students and educators or parents) and plan to maximise the learning experiences that you will be participating in, or will be organising for others.
There are so many interesting things happening around the world and we must learn from those and adopt as well as adapt ideas or strategies to better advance our people and the future generation.
Next week: Helping poor people with banking services.

  • Thomas Hukahu is a freelance writer.

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