Neil Turok and the secrets of the universe

Why are we here? One of the world’s greatest physicists on the search for answers

The secrets of the universe


“We live in a worried world that seems short of good ideas,” Neil Turok writes in The Universe Within, this year’s CBC Massey Lectures. But his cross-country lecture tour and the accompanying book are dedicated to the proposition that “a good idea can change the world.” He shows how that already happened in ancient Athens, in 18th-century Scotland, in Vienna a century ago and in his native South Africa, where his parents helped defeat the apartheid regime. And Turok, the director of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ont., shows how physics breakthroughs right here in Canada may soon change the world once again.

One does not need to look far to find examples where science’s success has encouraged a certain overreach and disconnect. There is a tendency to exaggerate the significance of scientific discoveries, and to dismiss nonscientific ideas as irrelevant.

Many scientists, for example, express the viewpoint that the universe seems pointless at a deep level, and that our situation is somehow tragic. For myself, I find this position hard to understand. Merely to be alive, to experience and to appreciate the wonder of the universe and to be able to share it with others is a miracle. I can only think that it is the separation of scientists from society, caused by the focus and intensity of their research, that leads them to be so dismissive of other aspects of human existence. Of course, taking the view that the universe seems pointless is also a convenient way for scientists to eliminate any prior prejudices or ulterior motives from their research. They want to figure out how things work without being biased by any thoughts of why they might work that way. It is reasonable to postpone questions of purpose when we have no scientific means of answering them. But to deny such influences is not to deal with them. Scientists are often consciously or unconsciously driven by agendas well outside science, even if they do not acknowledge them.

Many people outside science are interested in exactly the questions that scientists prefer to avoid. They want to know what scientific discoveries mean: in the case of cosmology, why the universe exists and why we are here. I think that if science is to overcome the disconnection with society, it needs to be better able to explain science’s greatest lesson: that for the purpose of advancing our knowledge, it is extremely important to doubt constantly and to live with uncertainty. Richard Feynman [the theoretical physicist] put it this way: “This attitude of mind—this attitude of uncertainty—is vital to the scientist, and it is this attitude of mind which the student must first acquire. It becomes a habit of thought. Once acquired, we cannot retreat from it anymore.”

In today’s sound-bite world, intellectual modesty and being frank about uncertainty are not the easiest things to promote. Nevertheless, I suspect scientists will become more, not less, credible if they do so, and society will feel less alienated from science.

My own view is that science should ultimately be about serving society’s needs. Society needs to better understand science and to see its value beyond just providing the next gadget or technical solution. Science should be a part of fulfilling society’s goals and creating the kind of world we would like to inhabit. Building the future is not only about servicing our needs, although those are important. There’s an inspirational aspect of science and of understanding our place in the universe that enriches society and art and music and literature and everything else. Ever since the ancient Greeks, science has well appreciated that a free exchange of ideas, in which we are constantly trying out new theories, is the best way to make progress. Within the scientific community, a new student can question the most senior professor, and authority is never acceptable as an argument. If our ideas are any good, it does not matter where they come from; they must stand on their own. Science is profoundly democratic in this sense. While its driver is often individual genius or insight, it engenders a strong sense of common cause and humility among its practitioners. These ways of thinking and behaving are valuable well beyond the borders of science.

However, as science has grown, it has also become increasingly specialized. To quote Richard Feynman again, “There are too few people who have such a deep understanding of two departments of our knowledge that they do not make fools of themselves in one or the other.”

As science fragments, it becomes less accessible, both to other scientists and to the general public. Opportunities for cross-fertilization are missed, scientists lose their sense of wider purpose, and their science is reduced either to a self-serving academic exercise or a purely technical task, while society remains ignorant of science’s great promise and importance.

There are ways of overcoming this problem of disconnection, and they are becoming increasingly important. I am fortunate to live in a very unusual community in Canada with a high level of public interest in science. Every month, our institute, Perimeter, holds a public lecture on physics in the local high school, in a hall with a capacity of 650. Month in and month out, the lectures are packed, with all the tickets sold out.

How did this happen? The key, I believe, is simply respect. When scientists make a serious attempt to explain what they are doing and why, it isn’t hard to get people excited. There are many benefits: for the public, it is a chance to learn first-hand from experts about cutting-edge research; for scientists, it is a great chance to share one’s ideas and to learn how to explain them to non-specialists.

In the heyday of Victorian science, many scientists engaged in public outreach. Michael Faraday was recruited into science at a public lecture given by Sir Humphrey Davy at the Royal Institution in London. Faraday went on to succeed Davy as the director of the institution and give many public lectures himself. While a fellow at Cambridge, James Clerk Maxwell helped to found a workingmen’s college providing scientific lectures in the evenings, and he persuaded local businesses to close early so their workers could attend. When he became a professor at Aberdeen and then King’s College, London, he continued to give at least one evening lecture each week at the workingmen’s colleges there.

Today, the Internet provides an excellent medium for public outreach. One of the first students to attend the new master’s program at our institute, Henry Reich, went on to pursue an interest in film. A year later, he launched a YouTube channel called MinutePhysics. It presents cleverly thoughtful, low-tech but catchy explanations of basic concepts in physics, making the ideas accessible and captivating to a wide audience. Henry realized there is a treasure trove of insights, many never before explained to the public, lying buried in the scientific literature. Communicating them well requires a great deal of care, thought and respect for your audience. Henry’s channel now has more than 300,000 subscribers.

At our institute, we also engage in scientific “inreach.” The idea is to bring people from fields outside science, from history, art, music, or literature, into our scientific community. Science shares a purpose with these other disciplines: to explore and appreciate this universe we are privileged to inhabit. Looking back on the great eras of discovery and progress, we see that this commonality of purpose was critical, and it seems to me we have to recreate it. The philosopher Epicurus, for example, seems in some respects to have anticipated the arguments of [philosopher] David Hume and Galileo, arguing that nothing should be believed without being tested through direct observation and logical deduction; in other words, the scientific method.

Epicurus is also credited with the ethic of reciprocity, according to which one should treat others as one would like to be treated by them. These two ideas laid the foundations for justice: that everyone has the same right to be fairly treated and no one should be penalized until their crime is proven. Likewise, the methods and principles of scientific discourse were foundational to the creation of our modern democracy. We all have the capacity to reason, and everyone deserves an equal hearing. In considering our situation in Canada today, we have a great many advantages: strong public education and health care systems; a peaceful, tolerant and diverse society; a stable economy and phenomenal natural resources. It is internationally renowned as a friendly and peaceful nation and widely appreciated for its collaborative spirit. There are many other places in the world that hold similar promise. I can think of no better cause than for us to join together to make the 21st century unique as the era of the first Global Enlightenment. The history of physics traces back to the dawn of civilization. It is a story of how we have steadily realized our capacity to discover nature’s deep secrets, and to build the understanding and the technologies that lay the basis for progress.

Again and again, our efforts have revealed the fundamental beauty and simplicity in the universe. Today, we have many advantages over the scientists of earlier times. There are seven billion minds on the planet, mostly those of young people in aspiring, developing countries. The Internet is connecting us all, providing instant access to educational and scientific resources. The world can become a hive of education, collaboration and discussion. The entry of new cultures into the scientific community will be a vital source of energy and creativity. We are better placed, too, to understand our position in the cosmos. We have just mapped the universe and pieced together the story of its emergence from a tiny ball of light some 14 billion years ago. Likewise, we have detected the vacuum energy that dominates the universe and determines the Hubble length, the largest distance at which we will ever be able to see galaxies and stars. We have just discovered the Higgs particle, a manifestation of the detailed structure of the vacuum, predicted by theory half a century ago. Today, theory is poised to understand the big-bang singularity and physics on the Planck length, a scale so tiny that classical notions of space and time break down. All the indications are that the universe is at its simplest at the smallest and largest scales: the Planck length and the Hubble length. It may be no coincidence that the size of a living cell is the geometric mean of these two fundamental lengths. This is the scale of life, the realm we inhabit, and it is the scale of maximum complexity in the universe. We live in a world with many causes of unhappiness. I have compared one of these, the information overload from the digital revolution, with the “ultraviolet catastrophe” that signalled classical physics’ demise at the start of the 20th century. One can draw further parallels with the selfish, individualistic behaviours that are often the root cause of our environmental and financial crises. Within physics, I see the idea of a “multiverse” as a similarly fragmented perspective, representing a loss of confidence in the prospects for basic science. Yet, I believe all of these crises will ultimately be helpful if they force us, like the quantum physicists, to remake our world in more holistic and far-sighted ways. Through a deeper appreciation of the universe and our ability to comprehend it, not just scientists but everyone can gain.

At a minimum, the magnificent cosmos provides some perspective on our parochial, human-created problems, be they social or political. Nature is organized in better ways, from which we can learn. The love of nature can bring us together and help us to appreciate that we are part of something far greater than ourselves. Society has too often been content to live off the fruits of science, without understanding it. Scientists have too often been happy to be left alone to do their science without thinking about why they are doing it. It is time to connect our science to our humanity, and in so doing to raise the sights of both. If we can only link our intelligence to our hearts, the doors are wide open to a brighter future, to a more unified planet with more unified science, to quantum technologies that extend our perception, to breakthroughs allowing us to access and utilize energy more cleverly and to travel in space that opens new worlds. What a privilege it is to be alive. Truly, we are faced with the opportunity of all time.

Excerpt from the 2012 CBC Massey Lectures, The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos. Copyright © 2012 Neil Turok and CBC. Permission granted by All Rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher.

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