Scientific celebrities inspire the public in Vancouver

Nobel laureates Kip Thorne, Jim Peebles and Sir Roger Penrose help the Quantum Gravity Institute in Vancouver inspire the next generation.

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Explaining quantum gravity, a theory that would reconcile Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics, is a problem that has vexed physicists for more than a century.

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And scientists have tried, ever since Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity and how it shaped the science of the universe, and not long after, the theory of quantum mechanics, which paved the way for computers and lasers and countless technologies.

In the middle of a conference on quantum gravity in Vancouver, Nobel laureate Kip Thorne said that physics is close to the theoretical observations and the technological ability to prove its existence.

“This is a time when you have cosmological observations as well as in the lab, experiments, the opportunity to actually bring them into observations of how the universe works,” Thorne told the inaugural meeting of the Quantum Gravity Institute in the Westin. Bayshore on Wednesday afternoons.

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“Truly, the payoffs, in terms of applications, are going to be huge,” said Thorne, a professor emeritus at the California Institute of Technology, executive producer of the film Interstellar and a household name in gravitational physics.

He was one of the scientific celebrities gathered for what the founders of the Quantum Gravity Institute hope will be the beginning of making Vancouver a hub for collaboration in the hotly contested field, which is being researched at top universities around the world.

Wednesday was a day of public lectures intended to inspire a wider scientific audience in a highly theoretical series of discussions.

But as much as quantum gravity would help explain the birth of the universe and the Big Bang, which regulates black hole nuclei and the structure of space at very, very small scales, it was a tough nut to crack.

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Resolving contradictions between the gravitational physics of Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics “has resisted progress for a century,” said Jim Peebles, a professor emeritus at Princeton University and a 2019 Nobel laureate.

“I don’t expect anything to show up tomorrow,” Peebles said. “But of course we can be persistent. We will make progress and I think in the long run we will get closer and closer to an answer.”

For Terry Hui, CEO of Concord Pacific and part of the Quantum Gravity Institute founding association, the hope is that some of those advances will now come from Vancouver.

“One of the focuses of society is to promote collaboration,” said Hui, who has worked with financiers Frank Giustra, Paul Lee, Moe Kermani and Markus Frind.

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“We in Vancouver have a place that people want to go to,” Hui said. “It’s an easy place to come, it’s lovely here, and if you want to design an experiment, you have to talk a lot before designing an experiment, you might not get funding.”

“We want to fill that gap,” said Hui, who compared attending the conference to “being someone who would never let the high school hockey team hang out in the Canucks locker room.”

“I see how the celebrities interact with the younger scientists and (that) is super important too,” Hui said.

In any case, the conference was a moment of inspiration for the next generation of scientists and students who were welcome at the event on Wednesday.

“I’m very excited to be a part of that,” said University of BC PhD student Avinash Deshmukh, who volunteered to attend.

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Deshmukh’s work is in experimental physics, not theory, and he didn’t realize how much theoretical physics depends on experimentation.

“I think this institute is a really good way for theorists and experimenters to actually come together,” Deshmukh said.

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