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Neil Turok and the coming quantum revolution

The director of the Perimeter Institute explores the ideas behind his new book, The Universe Within


For several weeks I had not one, but two, advance copies of Neil Turok’s new book, The Universe Within, sitting on my desk. Dr. Turok is one of the world’s leading physicists and director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, an independent research institute founded by former Research in Motion co-CEO Mike Lazaridis. Dr. Turok’s book, which forms the basis for this year’s CBC Massey Lectures, explores “the coming quantum revolution that will transform technology and communications in the 21st century.”

My only previous experience reading a “popular” book on theoretical physics – A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking – ended badly. I was thrilled by the deep concepts and insights it contained, but like many other readers, I got bogged down in the equations and never finished it – hence my reluctance to pick up Dr. Turok’s book. But, after several colleagues inquired excitedly about the two books on my desk, and one colleague actually made off with one of the copies, I decided to take the plunge.

I finished the book within a week and enjoyed it (there were mercifully few equations), but with some reservations.

The book offers an excellent historical overview of mathematics and physics, from the Pythagoreans through to Galileo, Copernicus and Newton, the Scottish enlightenment, and Einstein and his contemporaries. It was also a sobering reminder of the vast amount of physics of which I remain ignorant.

Among my realizations from the book is that many of us – I won’t presume to speak for everybody – are stuck in a kind of classical Newtonian understanding of physical reality. We understand the falling apple, the rattling lid on a pot of boiling water, the concepts of force and mass. We also even vaguely understand the moon’s gravitational pull on the tides, the flow of electricity through wires, and so on. We understand these things because they are mostly visible; they are part of our common everyday experience.

But physics has moved far beyond the sorts of mechanical inventions that led to the Industrial Revolution and into mysterious quantum realms many of us can barely conceptualize. Which led to one of my other major realizations: the strange new world of quantum theory isn’t really that new. It was the likes of Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrödinger who ushered it in in the early part of the 20th century, a “golden age” for physics. Their work enabled the development of transistors, integrated circuits, lasers, the Internet, digital cameras and all the other modern gadgetry that has transformed our lives.

In perhaps the key insight of Dr. Turok’s book, addressing the gulf between our common understanding and our great achievements, he writes: “We are analog beings living in a digital world, facing a quantum future.” Heady stuff.

The humanist

Another pleasure of the book was to learn a bit about Dr. Turok the humanitarian and optimist. He was born in South Africa, where his parents were jailed for being anti-Apartheid activists. He seems to have been deeply affected by that, and by the notion that justice and the power of ideas can change the world. He has an obvious affection for Africa and over the past decade has helped to found the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, or AIMS. His goal: to “unlock and nurture scientific talent across Africa, so that within our lifetimes we are celebrating an African Einstein.”

Dr. Turok also believes strongly in science as a force for good and states that science and society’s mission are one and the same. “Science is, in general, open-minded, tolerant and democratic,” he writes. “In its opposition to dogma and willingness to live with uncertainty, science is in many ways a model for society.”

The coming revolution

There was one major part of the book, however, that left me somewhat dissatisfied. Much of the premise of the book is to set the stage for the coming quantum revolution, of which Dr. Turok is very enthusiastic:

“A wonderful new world is beckoning. … Quantum physics has revealed that the behaviour of the universe, and the way in which we are involved in it, is stranger than anything anyone could have expected. On the horizon are technologies and understanding beyond anything we have experienced so far. We are quite literally being challenged to rise to the next level of existence, the next stage of evolution of ourselves and of the universe.”

Try as I might, I remain unmoved. As Dr. Turok mentions, quantum physics – with its multiverses, superpositions and singularity theorems – is revealing that the universe is very, very strange indeed, behaving in ways which defy our common understanding of classical physics. I find it hard to grasp fundamentally what he’s talking about and what this future will actually hold. I hear his admonition, “The future is bright, if only we can rise to it,” but I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge.

Dr. Turok began his series of Massey Lectures in St. John’s on October 10 and delivers his fifth and final lecture on October 24 in Toronto. CBC Radio will broadcast the lectures on its Ideas program the week of November 12 to 16. Have a listen … or buy the book!

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau has been the deputy editor of University Affairs since 2003. He started the Margin Notes blog in 2009 and it has gone on to win several awards, including Best Blog at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
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