Quanta for Quantum: Calgary seed fund seeks to build the foundation for theoretical physics in Alberta

Private citizens to fund Perimeter Institute like research foundation in Alberta

A simulation image showing the generation of a Higgs boson elementary particle. The quantum particle was first theorized of in the 1960s, and then discovered in 2012 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN. LUCAS TAYLOR / CERN

Unlike many visionaries who talk about going big, a group of private Albertan citizens has a small vision for Alberta—about 1.616255 x 10-35 m in size.

The above being a Planck length, a minutely small distance where classical ideals about space and time meet quantum physics.

Quantum physics describes our universe at the very smallest sizes of atoms and subatomic particles.

And it is the theoretical underpinnings of quantum physics that Richard Bird, and other private investors, want to turn Alberta into a leader in.

“Quantum physics really underpins our understanding of how everything in the in the universe works, and the better you understand how the universe works, the better you are able to take advantage of that understanding to develop new technology,” said Bird.

The fund has been set up with seed capital of $1 million through the Calgary Foundation, but Bird emphasizes that this effort is not just based in any one city or any one institution.

“What the fund is, is really a very first step towards a longer term vision to create a world class research institute here in Alberta, as a pan-Albertan effort,” he said.

Attracting the best and brightest minds to Alberta

Bird freely admits that the starting seed money isn’t nearly enough to accomplish his long-term vision for theoretical research in the province. Yet he said he hopes that it expands to meet, in pure research terms, a fairly modest goal of around $15 million per year.

“Because our focus is more on the theoretical side of quantum physics than it is on the applied side, we’re not looking at the kind of dollars that are required to build an atom smasher,” he said.

The Large Hadron Collider built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN, cost in excess of $4.75 billion.

“The theoretical side is mostly done in people’s heads on blackboards and whatever the modern equivalent of the blackboard is,” said Bird.

He said that Alberta already has a great foundation of theoretical physicists at universities across the province, and that influenced his decision on what area of science to pick seed funding for.

“Our intention is to build on top of that, and ultimately, to have a research effort that’s going to make the kind of transformational breakthroughs that we think are possible in this field,” he said.

A place for private funding in science

Currently, the provincial government provides funding for near-term and applied quantum research with commercial aims.

The province announced in Oct. of 2020, that the University of Calgary would receive $3 million for quantum research through the Major Innovation Fund.

Bird believes this is the right model for the province, given as he said “the government doesn’t have unlimited financial resources.”

“But it can only push the applied and commercialization side of this so far without deepening the understanding that we have of the fundamental science that it all sits on top of,” he said.

“So if anybody is going to step up to the plate, it would seem to be more appropriate for private citizens who have an interest in the science and an interest in Alberta to do that kind of funding.”

Dr. Robert Thompson, a Professor of Physics at the University of Calgary, said in a prepared release, that he was excited about the role the private fund would play in enhancing the overall quantum strategy in the province.

“The foundational focus will be strongly complementary to the existing provincial quantum strategy, filling a critical gap in our overall quantum ecosystem,” he said.

Bird said that his private group of investors did well in their respective careers in Alberta, and want to give back in ways that create more prosperity in the province.

“We’re all very proud of Alberta, and we’d like to see Alberta’s stature on the global stage, its brand so to speak, be diversified and be enhanced. And making a contribution on the theoretical side of this could go a long way towards accomplishing that,” said Bird.

Dr. Robert Thompson, left, and Makoto Fujiwara in front of ALPHA (antihydrogen laser physics apparatus) at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. Courtesy of Robert Bird.

Looking to the Perimeter Institute as a model for Alberta

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is a research centre located in Waterloo, Ontario, and has been recognized as a world-class institute for theoretical research.

Bird has envisioned a similar but more topically focused Alberta institute.

“This is intended to be a pan-Alberta Center of Excellence, which would have a relationship with each of the universities,” he said.

He hopes that this is a vision that will be able to come to pass within the next 10 years.

In the meantime, he said that as their funding gradually grows they will work to formalize arrangements with each of Alberta’s universities.

The quantum economy

Drawing the best and brightest minds to Alberta to do theoretical research also has large implications for the economy.

Within that 10 year time frame, Bird also hopes that kind of brainpower will also lead to a thriving quantum industry.

“And that has been made possible, at least in part, because of the progress that’s been made in understanding the fundamental science as a result of this center of excellence,” he said.

Existing technologies like MRIs used in hospitals, and GPS positioning are two technologies the public is familiar with but might not realize involve quantum physics.

“We’re probably still just scratching the surface in terms of the new technologies, and some of them, maybe, that we can’t even imagine at the moment,” said Bird.

The CBC reported in June that Mphasis formed a partnership with the University of Calgary to build a place for companies to work on commercializing quantum technologies. The article suggested that between 500 and 1,000 jobs would be created as part of the Quantum City Centre of Excellence initiative.

“It could be a diversification into a whole sort of knowledge and technology-based industries, that can over time take the place of our fossil fuel industry as that eventually wanes in its significance in our economy,” said Bird.

Helping build a quantum future

Bird said that anyone who wants to join his group of private investors can do so through the Calgary Foundation via the Quantum Foundations Research Fund.

“The creation of this fund at the Calgary Foundation is yet another example of generous Calgarians showing us the way through their unique visions for the future of our community,” said President and CEO of the Calgary Foundation, Eva Friesen.

“It’s still pretty early in its definition, but we would certainly be happy to talk to anybody that wants to talk about it,” said Bird.

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