Burton, Howard. First principles: The crazy business of doing serious science. Toronto: Key Porter, 2009. 286pp.

First Principles is physicist Howard Burton's story of how Research in Motion founder and CEO Mike Lazaridis basically plucked him out of obscurity to become the founding executive director for The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. And quite a story it is.

Burton had just finished his PhD and was looking for work. He sent some CVs around and one of the responses was from Lazaridis, who was looking for do something both big and important with his considerable wealth. After a brief (and rather odd) interview, Burton got the job. It was then his job to figure out how to start up a serious theoretical research institute from scratch, get government funding, get top scientists interested in joining the institute, get the building designed and built, and keep all the various local stakeholders happy in the local community, including several local universities who might have liked Lazaridis to shower his money on them instead.

Phew. I'm exhausted just typing what Burton had to get done. And amazingly, he did it. The PI is established, prestigious and growing. Oddly, Burton doesn't work there anymore as the Epilogue mysteriously states. It seems that the powers that be weren't so happy to have the story told in a frank and honest manner.

Which surprises me. While Burton tells the story with great humour and verve, he reserves most of the self-deprecation for himself. There's no scandal here, no recriminations, no startling revelations. Sure, some missteps or minor errors, but it's not surprising that such an ambitious undertaking would have a few bumps on the road.

In any case, this is a terrific book and I recommend it whole-heartedly. It's an important contribution to the history of scientific institutions and while not an instruction manual, has many worthwhile observations about herding academics. Any academic library or large public library that collects any popular science or history of science would find that this book fits in their collection. This book is an absolute must for any Canadian academic institution, without question. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be readily available in the US or UK yet, but hopefully it will find publishers or distributors there. Both Amazons have it, though.

Now comes the fun part. Like I alluded to above, some of the most interesting parts of the book are Burton's insights into academia and academics, especially of the science variety.

Let's take a look at some selected quotes.

On Canadian university presidents (p. 76-77):

In Canada, however, there is typically no clear way forward at all, resulting in the rather curious situation where university presidents will flexibly adopt whatever raison d'etre for their institutions they feel maximizes the momentary likelihood of procuring additional government resources for their cause -- indeed they are presumably chosen for the role with precisely this sort of dialectical dexterity in mind in the first place. And so we naturally come to the point where the president of the University of Waterloo, hearing that a prospective philanthropist in his neck of the woods is interested in physics, immediately set upon the task of convincing the would-be donor that his institution would make the ideal spot for such and enterprise. Tomorrow, of course, there may be another philanthropist who is passionate about Bollywood films or Babylonian architecture or bioinformatics, and one can rest assured that the president will unhesitatingly spring into action to argue the overwhelming resonance of hsi university with those endeavors as well.

On academic administrators (p. 163):

University administrations tend to be replete with people who are often reasonably accomplished in their own narrow line of research but generally lack any sense of strategic or tactical sense, boldness, objectivity, candour, breadth, judgement, management skills, political instinct, financial awareness or, quite frankly, personality. Worse still, they are invariably ambitious, meaning that they are desperately determined to cling to their hard-earned titles and eventually swap them for something shinier and more prestigious.

It is this last characteristic that is perhaps most dangerous. Academics, with their natural conservatism and innate hierarchical sympathies, have a particular reverence for titles and onse one has achieved a particular administrative distinction it is as if the slate is wiped clean from previous experience. So it is that I would repeatedly find myself at round-table meetings of influential experts with a wealth of academic administrative experience sententiously discussing issues and policies surrounding, say, funding for scientific research, before suddenly realizing that many of these people were specialists in Elizabethan poetry or Marxist interpretations of Tolstoy and couldn't solve the simplest undergraduate mathematical equation, let alone empathize in any serious way with the research community. Curious that.

On being high-strung (p. 183):

[T]here are times when their unholy amalgamation of high anxiety, blatant self-interest and often unbounded self-assuredness can make for a particularly toxic combination, resulting in a sense of strategic ineptitude of almost mythic proportions.

...They are not well balanced by definition -- success in research, by whatever metric one wishes to define it, trumps all. It is easy to ridicule them for their inability to take a broad overall perspective, but that's hardly the point. It's essential to recognize that their narrow and overriding focus on their research is in many ways necessary for their success. While there are a few exceptions, most scientists I know find it close to impossible to combine productive research with any sort of regular routine...

...They are working. Just don't let them run the place.

Well, as you can see, this is a book that just keeps on giving.

Update 2009.06.14: Amazon.ca link.

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