Review of The Universe Within by

Book cover for The Universe Within

Certain things just make Canadian public broadcasting awesome, and the Massey Lectures are one shining example. For one week, since 1961, with a few exceptions, CBC radio has broadcast annual lectures on a topic from philosophy or culture by notable figures. These lectures now get published in book format. Douglas Coupland’s most recent novel, Player One, is an adaptation of the lectures he gave in 2010. Now Neil Turok, a noted physicist and current director of the Perimeter Institute, has had a go. With The Universe Within, Turok brings the very big and the very small to the forefront of public consciousness as he looks at cosmology and quantum physics and where science and society are going from here.

Just as the Massey Lectures themselves excite me, so too do books on science. There’s just something so decadent about sinking into a good book explaining how the world works, and how we know this how the world works, and of course, all the affairs and scandals the people who learned how the world works had while learning it! Science and the history of science are intensely fascinating concepts. Turok has done his best to recap the better part of twentieth-century physics, with brief trips further into the past to bring us the origins of scientific thought in Anaximander and Pythagoras’ Greece.

Turok begins with a passionate encomium of the power of science and mathematics to explain our world. Calling it “magic that works”, he explains the origins of quantum mechanics, the most recent (and probably biggest) revolution in physics. From Max Planck to Einstein to Hawking and himself, Turok points out how quantum mechanics—which is normally only good on the small scale—could help us answer one of the biggest questions of all: how did the universe begin? He intersperses this tale with more personal stories of growing up in South Africa, Tanzania, and England, and of his own efforts to help raise the profile of science in Africa. (Indeed, Turok’s perspective as a native of South Africa allows him to speak about the challenges facing African nations with an authority few renowned scientists possess. Let’s hope that changes as Africa produces more renowned scientists!)

The links that Turok draws between quantum mechanics and cosmogony are interesting. The classical big bang theory and its inflationary addendum are the most well-known origin theories, but they have their drawbacks. Most notoriously, the big bang theory inevitably results in a singularity at time zero—a point where our mathematics are unable to make sense of the initial conditions of the universe. We can explain what happened 10^(-43) seconds after the beginning of the universe, but not what happened at the beginning. That’s why some physicists, Turok included, are championing a cyclical theory of big bangs—and they are hoping quantum mechanics will help them prove it. Cyclical big bang theory side-steps the singularity problem through clever theorizing and equally clever math. It also offers an answer to another nagging physics problem: fine-tuning.

Physicists have, since the middle of the twentieth century, been able to summarize all of physics quite concisely. In fact, they can do it with a single, beautiful equation. It involves quite a few constants whose values have been measured or calculated to great precision—but we don’t know why the constants have those values, other than that if they didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. Hence the anthropic principle: the universe is the way it is because if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be around to see it. The cyclical big bang theory negates the need for the anthropic principle, because it sees the birth and destruction of infinitely many universes.

Of course, having a theory and sensible is one thing. Having evidence is quite another, and that’s what Turok needs next. I knew that gravitational waves are a predicted but not yet observed phenomenon of general relativity. I didn’t know that detecting long wavelength gravitational waves in the cosmic background radiation would lend strength to inflationary theory! It’s cool to find out how some of the experiments currently being conducted could affect contemporary competing theories. On a related note, this might be one of first books to note the discovery of the Higgs boson by the Large Hadron Collider. Turok doesn’t mention that the Higgs’ existence hasn’t been officially acknowledged; we’ve detected a particle that is almost certainly what we’d call the Higgs boson, though we still need a little more data to call it a day. But I forgive him because he’s probably very excited. So am I!

In the last part of the book, Turok shifts focus from cosmology to computer science. He explains the role of physics in developing computing and pays particular attention to the possibilities that might open up if we get quantum computing working. With a brief detour into Teilhard’s Omega Point and some name-checking of Marshall McLuhan, Turok settles down to discuss some of the difficulties facing us in pushing science to that next level. I sense that this is supposed to be the most important and profound part of the book, but it comes off as the weakest and least substantive. After an interesting hundred pages on the history of physics and the origin of the universe, the last chapter is a mixture of blue-sky enthusing for the future and realistic evaluations of our current challenges. In the end, it didn’t really leave me excited or inspired, though I certainly found the book informative and sometimes entertaining.

The Universe Within is part cosmology, part history, part philosophy. The first two are excellent in every respect. The last part has its moments but doesn’t quite integrate with the rest of the book. Perhaps this is a result of its adaptation from lectures, for the entire book has moments where it seems to lack focus or direction. Turok is at his best when he is explaining the link between history and physics—the how we know what we know part—and for that alone, this is a good book to read.

Engagement

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