Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The book Howard Burton believes contributed to his removal from Perimeter Institute

I'd been looking forward to reading Howard Burton's book for over two years -- ever since people who knew him told me he had written it ... and that it wasn't going over well with Perimeter Institute bigwigs. Burton was the institute's first executive director -- the man picked by PI founder and principal benefactor Mike Lazaridis to turn his vision of a physics institute into reality.

It wasn't long after I heard about the book -- maybe a couple of months, I don't really remember -- that PI announced that Burton, to borrow an expression from another field, had been future endeavored* and was "seeking new challenges."

Now the book has been published and we can read the words that apparently caused so much agitation. First Principles: The Crazy Business of Doing Serious Science was released by Key Porter Books a few weeks ago. Although it's only discussed briefly in a six-page epilogue, Burton always felt the book was a significant factor in his departure from PI, an outcome he makes clear was the institute's idea and not his, and which he still finds "mystifying."

On the one hand, there's not much here that could reasonably become any kind of cause célèbre, but I know firsthand how irrationally hyper-reactive some folks can become -- particularly control freaks or people used to being big fish (often in tiny ponds) -- when something is written that doesn't match what they think should be said. So, it's possible that this book really did create an uproar in some circles, even if it mostly consists of reasonable observations about the importance of basic research, the role of universities, and the pressure for "commercialization," along with the central story of how Burton went about putting the institute together.

There are some anecdotes that show the eccentric side of Lazaridis, but not many and nothing mean. The funniest is probably the tale of a meeting at Lazaridis's house with UW president David Johnston. Burton says the three of them went to look at the home theatre in the basement and Lazaridis played the DVD of Armageddon, the Bruce Willis movie. "I glanced at my watch and wondered how much more of this I would have to endure," Burton writes. "After half an hour or so, it began to dawn on me that, much to my horror, we were going to watch the entire movie. To this day, I'm not entirely sure why we did this." Funny lines -- and Armageddon was a silly movie (I loved The Island, though, which only got slightly better reviews) -- but I have some doubts that Burton would have included the story if Lazaridis had screened La Dolce Vita.

Burton cleans up the story of his one public rift with Lazaridis: the incident in the waning days of the 2006 federal election campaign when then-Prime Minister Paul Martin -- looking like he was imminently to become ex-Prime Minister -- announced funding for Perimeter Institute and UW's Institute for Quantum Computing, along with two other research centres. Burton saw it as a cynical election ploy and, even worse, one that would be hitching PI's horses to the losing wagon -- something that would probably be remembered by the new government when forming its first budget.

"I was amazed to discover that surrounding university officials and representatives were ecstatic to make the lemming-like drive off the cliff to wed their fortunes with those of the desperate Martinites," Burton writes ... not mentioning that one of those university officials was UW chancellor Lazaridis, who, along with Johnston, happily drove to Markham to be photographed with Martin and praise the announcement. "I couldn't even stomach the thought of showing up," Burton wrote at the time -- a sentiment he echoes in the book.

Burton says he always realized that if PI got off the ground that he "would be its Achilles heel" -- the guy with no reputation in the physics world, or in any world, really, who got hired because he wrote a letter to the right person at the right time and made a good impression. He says he was initially treated with suspicion by some members of Lazaridis's inner circle who were concerned that he was some leech intent on sucking away on the Lazaridis fortune.

In the end, he says that it's "hard to feel that there isn't at least some grain of truth" to stories that he and Lazaridis both wanted to take credit for creating PI, leading to a "clash of egos." Two years after Burton's departure, the PI website still mentions Burton in the first paragraph of its "About PI" section, and says he was "instrumental" in shaping the institute, so whatever clash there may have been didn't extend to erasing Burton from the history books or understating his contribution.**

Burton's views on basic research and commercialization are similar to mine, and when he writes that "university presidents will flexibly adopt whatever raison d'etre for their institutions they feel maximizes the momentary liklihood of procuring additional government resources for their cause," I can add that it's not just university presidents who behave that way.

According to the book, he now lives in France. He didn't think much of Waterloo. Like Burton, I also came to Waterloo from Toronto and had a big-city chip on my shoulder, but my nose never reached the altitute that his did. He thought Toronto was beneath his worldly tastes, but coming to Waterloo made it seem exciting in comparison. He makes a point of discussing the 2004 Lisa Rochon Globe & Mail story where she called Waterloo "a city of surpassing ugliness" and a "dystopia," making it clear that it was all he could do to restrain himself from shouting "hear, hear" when asked to comment on the article. The foreword to the book even has Roger Penrose calling Waterloo "a seemingly unremarkable town."

For those of us who have become accustomed to histories of UW published by UW and the history of the City of Waterloo published by the City of Waterloo, Burton's book is a welcome alternative. While it's hardly a tell-all, the book at least gives the reader something outside the party line. And, in a small community like Waterloo, that can be enough to create controversy.

* When companies announce that someone has left the organization, the last line is often "we wish him well in his future endeavors" or something similar. That phrasing was so popular with WWE that now, when someone gets released or their contract isn't renewed, it's become an in-joke within wrestling to say the person was "future endeavored." The actual line in the PI announcement was "I wish Howard well in his future activities," which could have been written by WWE. On top of being a useful expression, I just enjoy making a pro wrestling reference in a post about someone with highbrow pretentions.

**December 2009 Addendum: At some point after I wrote this, Burton's name was indeed deleted from that page and relegated to two brief mentions in a 2300-word history of PI: once to say he was hired and once to say he left. Nothing about being "instrumental."

Can Windsor use a non-snub to energize a focus on innovation?

OMG, did you hear? There's a new $100 million "Innovation SuperCorridor" initiative from the province introduced in the budget...