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Commentary: Initial steps to seed quantum leaps in B.C.’s business of physics

We can focus unduly about incompatibility and a lack of common ground.

We can focus unduly about incompatibility and a lack of common ground.

If you want to find a real need for meaningful, world-changing unity, though, look no further than into the world of physics, where two disputatious theories continue to beguile the best minds, no matter how hard they have tried.

For nearly a century, there has been a push to find harmony in the theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity to create a supreme mathematical framework that would explain all known phenomena – a so-named “theory of everything” that could tidy up loose ends like how the universe was created or the behaviour of black holes. It is arguably science’s biggest problem. 

The quest for quantum gravity is by no means an academic exercise. It could make real what we now largely consider science fiction: It could conceivably upend causality, give us even a window into time travel. Lest you think you’ve accidentally ventured into a science publication, there are staggering business-related consequences: new ways to tackle the energy and water crises and efficiencies for drug research, for example.

Which was part of the reason there was a sold-out august August gathering in Vancouver in recent days of many of the world’s premier physicists, commingled with some of the region’s most significant business-oriented philanthropists. Three Nobel laureates – two in person (Kip Thorne of black hole fame and Canadian-born cosmologist Jim Peebles of Big Bang fame), one virtually (92-year-old mathematician Sir Roger Penrose of Cambridge University) – participated, and the lineup was pretty much a who’s who in the field. A major driver of the project is Philip Stamp of the University of British Columbia’s Pacific Institute for Theoretical Physics.

In part it was an opportunity for the brainiacs to regroup for the first time since the pandemic sent everyone scattering into general isolation and Zoom-only dynamics for their ideas.
In part it was an opportunity, period. 

Five Vancouver-based business leaders – Terry Hui of Concord Pacific, Vanedge Capital partners Paul Lee (also chair at D-Wave) and Moe Kermani, Plentyoffish founder Markus Frind and Fiore Group CEO Frank Giustra, all with several other irons in the fire that would consume paragraphs to describe – are in conjunction with a collection of scientists, local and not, in founding the Quantum Gravity Society.

They aim to create an institute in Vancouver that will serve as an environment to get to the bottom of the unresolved, discordant theories, perhaps the place where collaborations will yield breakthroughs and where a new generation of physicists will germinate. It won’t compete with the many institutes worldwide with their luminaries in residence; rather, it aims to permit them to join forces more often.

Last week’s conference was pretty trippy. Even the day set aside for public consumption, for the “non-scientists” as it was put, still felt like you’d arrived at a party where everyone was discussing people you’d never met, in places you’d never been, speaking a dialect you’d never heard.

To get a bit of a grounding – something physics can tell us a few things about, for sure – I sat with Hui and Lee at lunch and did my best to keep up with their enthusiasm.

The idea came about three years ago from a conversation Hui, a Berkeley physics undergraduate, convened of the business leaders. While it may seem future-focused, the initiative identified an early purpose in preserving history by securing a definitive trove of content from a British archivist that Stamp learned of and underwriting what will be a $4 million digitization: some 47,000 hours of recordings, 220,000 pages of working notes.
Although it sullies science to talk too much business, they are at what Hui likens to a “pre-angel” phase in the idea’s development. 

They envision finding funds for the institution to produce a robust engine of collaborative research and dialogue, an environment sufficiently supported to permit the emergence of a solution to the irreconcilable theories. 

Last week’s gathering, as much as anything, was a giant focus group to gauge the interest of the essential community in the concept, the scientists themselves. So far, all good, even better than expected, but there is much more ahead and no fixed precept of what it will look like.

Similarly, it is early to predict applications; that is a business for the technologists more than the scientists, they say. 

But it is their kind of risk-taking that will make a major difference in the years to come if Vancouver wishes to be a centre of excellence for the knowledge economy, in part because of its audaciousness – the quantum step, if you will, into world-class objectives. It feels like something Elon Musk’s rational portion would get.

“We would like to get Canada to stop asking: ‘Why here?’” says Lee. 

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.