Why we explore

Theoretical physics gave birth to the modern world. It will define our future. 

Travelling back in time to the Roaring Twenties, you would witness the birth of the modern world. 

The Henry Ford Model T was on the road. Buster Keaton was on the silver screen. People were listening to music greats like Al Jolson, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington on the radio. Flappers were dancing the Charleston.

In the midst of this exuberance, physicists and mathematicians were busy at their blackboards and putting pen to paper.

They gave rise to a brand-new era of science.

First, quantum theory was born, with all its bizarre and revolutionary implications. It was not one singular breakthrough, but rather a veritable flurry of quickly snowballing insights.

Louis de Broglie postulated wave-particle duality in his 1924 PhD thesis. Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, and Pascual Jordan developed the first formulation of quantum mechanics in 1925. Erwin Schrödinger developed his wave equation, the most important equation of quantum mechanics, in 1926. Heisenberg introduced his famous uncertainty principle in 1927. The following year, Paul Dirac developed his relativistic wave equation that put together quantum mechanics with special relativity and gave birth to quantum field theory. These discoveries changed physics forever.

The fifth Solvay Conference on Physics in 1927 gathered all the notable physicists of the day to grapple with the revolutionary and bizarre implications of the newly developed and still controversial quantum field theory. Einstein, Born, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Dirac, and de Broglie were all in attendance, alongside other famous scientists such as Marie Curie, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and Wolfgang Pauli.

But that wasn’t all. Within the same decade, astrophysicists utterly redefined the universe itself. They shocked the world with the revelation that the Milky Way was not all of outer space – instead, it was just one galaxy among billions. The Smithsonian’s Great Debate between astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis in 1920 over the existence of distant galaxies – and the research that followed it up – rocked the foundations of human knowledge. Within a matter of years, the size of the known universe multiplied by a millionfold, sparking a search for a new theory of cosmology. 

These twin revolutions, in quantum science and in astrophysics, catalyzed a century of scientific advancement. They also made technological wonders a reality, including lasers, light-emitting diodes, transistors, medical imaging, high-end optics, and electron microscopes.

And also your smartphone. 

BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis recognized that the smartphone his company developed was born from the physics of yesteryear. It made him wonder whether the next leap in human discovery might be waiting just around the corner. 

This realization – that the future of technology is grounded in the theoretical physics that happens today – formed the vision for Perimeter Institute, which was officially launched on October 23, 2000. Thanks to Lazaridis, the Governments of Canada and Ontario, and other visionary supporters, Perimeter will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2025.

At its inception, Perimeter recruited nine internationally recognized scientists to push the boundaries of physics. Today, it has grown to nearly 50 faculty and associate faculty members, in addition to more than 70 postdoctoral researchers, all exploring the unknown.

But Perimeter does not work in isolation. It is a dynamic institution, one that hosts lively conferences and draws visiting scientists from around the world, including Neil Turok, Carlo Rovelli, Juan Maldacena, and other luminaries. Even the famous Stephen Hawking spent time at Perimeter as the Institute’s inaugural Distinguished Visiting Research Chair.

Perimeter’s research spans from the infinitesimal to the infinite, from particle physics to cosmology. 

Some Perimeter scientists are grappling with the very conundrums that befuddled the greats in the Roaring Twenties. Many features of quantum theory remain perplexing. What does it say about the fabric of reality? How do we interpret the counterintuitive effects of entanglement? How should we understand cause-effect relationships amongst the mysterious paradoxes of quantum theory? 

Meanwhile, other Perimeter scientists use their expertise in quantum gravity, strong gravity, and quantum fields and strings to build bridges between quantum theory, which describes particles and forces at the heart of atoms, and Einstein’s general relativity theory that describes gravity in the larger cosmos. Bridging these theories is one of the great challenges of theoretical physics. Solving it would open a whole new window into nature, perhaps a whole new scientific and technological era.

This is merely a sampling of the rigorous theoretical work Perimeter researchers are undertaking. Others explore the cutting-edge physics of artificial intelligence or new quantum materials, with revolutionary implications for quantum computing, medical diagnostics, smart energy, and material science. Perimeter researchers also play key roles in global collaborations – from the Event Horizon Telescope’s efforts to produce unprecedented images of black holes, to galaxy surveys like the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument that are mapping the expansion of the universe, to the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, a forthcoming space-based gravitational wave observatory. The list goes on. 

At its core, Perimeter recruits and trains trailblazers exploring new frontiers. There’s no telling what they’ll find – and the next discovery might be just around the corner.

Curious about Perimeter’s researchers or the advances in theoretical physics that are happening now? Stay in the know with our monthly newsletter, or watch this space for new researcher profiles and science highlights.