A Guidebook to the Universe — and to Ourselves

Neil Turok's new book covers cosmos and quarks, yes, but also schools and South Africa and you and me

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I have to admit that when I first heard that a new book was on the way titled The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos, my first reaction was somewhat uncharitable, along the lines of the famous “Who ordered this?” — a line uttered by the physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi when he was confronted with evidence for an unexpected and slightly unwelcome new particle. The idea of a physicist explaining the universe to the rest of us wasn’t a new concept when Stephen Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time back in 1988, and it’s been done over and over since then. Do we really need yet another bite out of this chewed-over apple?

It turns out we do, because Neil Turok wrote it. Turok, the director of Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, has been thinking outside the box of conventional physics for most of his career, which has included top-tier professorships at Princeton and the University of Cambridge. He has co-authored a theory that would eliminate the need for a Big Bang, for example, and thus for an answer to the brain-straining question of what was going on before time began — and unlike virtually all other attacks on the Big Bang theory, this one is taken seriously by mainstream cosmologists. The story of physics from Pythagoras to Dark Energy and everything in between has been told a million times, but it feels refreshing and new when Turok tells it.

(More: Time Talks to the Physicists Who Found the Higgs)

One reason is that along with his clear and eloquent explanations of quantum theory and other inherently murky topics, Turok also takes on issues that are usually left unaddressed in books of this kind — issues of the scientist’s obligations to the rest of humanity. “Physicists and engineers,” he told me in a recent conversation, “often have no serious exposure to history, to questions of society, to literature. They’re trained simply as technical experts.” For Turok, that’s not good enough. “I wanted to explore what science means for who we are as humans,” he said.

The answer, Turok believes, is connected to the astonishing fact that humans, who started out with nothing more than our unprecedented brainpower, have come comprehend the natural world in the first place. “I view math and physics as a sort of incredibly powerful knowledge which has landed in our laps,” he said. “We don’t understand why it works to explain the universe, but we know that it does. Fundamental physics is like a thread coming to us from the future. We pull on this thread, and pull ourselves into the future.”

(PhotosWindow on Infinity: Pictures from Space)

Another factor that distinguishes Turok from the average theoretical physicist is his upbringing. He’s originally from South Africa, where both of his parents were jailed for opposing apartheid. They eventually emigrated to London, but Turok returned to Africa at 17 to teach for a year in impoverished Lesotho. “I met many wonderful kids there, and was convinced of their intellectual potential,” he says. Most of their education, however — rote memorization, harsh discipline and low expectations — was almost perfectly designed to stamp that potential out.

(More: Inside the CERN: A Place Where Particles Fly)

In the mid-1990’s, Turok’s parents returned to a newly liberated South Africa, where they were elected to Parliament, and in 2001 he returned as well for a stint at the University of Cape Town, where he helped to found the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, to educate kids from all over the continent. “My academic colleagues said ‘it’s a real long shot,’” he recalled. “’You’ll be bring these students out of war zones and just be doing remedial math with them.”

From the first day, however, those doubters were proven wrong. “They’re the most motivated, impressive young people who, given half a chance, turn into these wonderful human beings who will be leaders of the next generation,” he says with evident pride. And indeed, in his new book, he writes of one of the Institute’s students, a girl named Esra from Darfur — a war zone if ever there was one — who told a person considering donating money to the school: “We want the next Einstein to be African.”

You might get an explanation as good as Turok’s on quantum physics or string theory from Lawrence Krauss (The Universe From Nothing), say, or Brian Greene (The Fabric of the Cosmos), but it won’t be better. And with the new book’s deeply thoughtful reflections on the place of science in society, on the need to educate the underserved, and on plenty of other topics rarely addressed in this sort of book, Turok takes you where no physicist has gone before. It’s well worth making the journey with him.

Photos: Window on Infinity: Pictures From Space