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A message from the Universe

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The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. […] Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.                                      – Albert Einstein, “The World As I See It”


I remember sitting on the shag carpet living room floor of my caregiver’s trailer home in rural Saskatchewan when I was five years old, watching Sesame Street and eating KD from the pot. There was something commonsensical, even innate, about the concept of sharing and helping others. I think that’s why I loved the show and have vivid memories of watching it.

I also recall an early visit to Central Newfoundland and a trip to Pop’s cabin on Square Pond near Gambo with my dad and uncle. “You hear that?” my uncle said with just enough alarm in his voice to perk my ears, as I held on to my dad while he carried me down the steep ladder stairs inside. “It’s a draft.”

“A giraffe?!” I curiously exclaimed, likely to a few chuckles and a clarification of facts.

Draft was a new word to my young ears, so I heard “giraffe” instead and immediately envisioned a big, tall, long-necked yellow and black-spotted animal coming across the frozen pond toward the cabin. The slight urgency in my uncle’s voice, to me, indicated the giraffe might be traveling at top speed too.

The important thing is that, with a glance out the window to confirm there was in fact not a giraffe coming across the pond, I had learned something. It may not have been whether or not there was a draft coming into the cabin, or even what a draft was, but a sense of wonderment and curiosity had sparked in me a desire to know, to investigate and learn a truth. And I suspect the reason I remember that moment, from such a young age, is because of the combined excitement of that curiosity and an incredible possibility.

As we grow older though, the big things — those crazy possibilities that exist foremost in the minds of children and optimists alike — seem to fade into our subconscious while money, bills, groceries, rent or mortgage payments and jobs that don’t fuel the fire inside us move to the fore. Not for everyone though. Some of us, by circumstance, determination or both, maintain that inquisitiveness in our daily lives, perhaps in pursuing a hobby, or, for the fortunate ones, a fulfilling career.

Neil Turok's "The Universe Within: from quantum to cosmos"

Neil Turok is one of those people, and he’s not into studying African land mammals, as I appeared to be headed for in those 30 seconds of my childhood. Turok is exploring the cutting edge of science, one so seemingly outside the realm of immediate reality by virtue of its mystical nature that it blurs the lines between the scientific and the spiritual.

A world-renowned cosmologist, Turok was born in South Africa during the apartheid era and educated in East Africa and Britain before crossing the Atlantic. He’s taught physics at Princeton University, held the chair of mathematical physics at Cambridge, and is now director of the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. He’s also this year’s CBC Massey Lecturer and author of the subsequent book, The Universe Within: from quantum to cosmos, published last month by House of Anansi Press.

Turok explores quantum physics and cosmology, branches of science that explore enormous possibilities, ones that begun seeping deeper into our consciousness as we learned how to observe sub-atomic particles and their bizarre behaviour. The conclusions have implications for some of our fundamental beliefs about who and what we are, how we experience ourselves, each other and the world, and ultimately, the nature of the universe. Together, he and Stephen Hawking developed a theory on the birth of inflationary universes, and within the next few decades Turok expects we will know whether the big bang marked the beginning, or whether it was just a “violent event in a previously existing universe.” We’re on the brink of a “quantum revolution”, a major paradigm shift that will displace the digital age, he says, arguing it’s time to break down the barriers between science and society, rethink how we are educating our children and prepare for a future that is looking incredibly different from the world we live in now.

Think Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein and those whose discoveries understatedly changed the world. Think even bigger, perhaps.

Turok spoke with The Independent in the lead-up to the Massey Lecture Series, which kicks off Wednesday evening at the St. John’s Arts & Culture Centre. It’s a bit of a read, so pour yourself a cup of tea and get comfortable — these are things worth thinking about.

In conversation with Neil Turok…

The book begins with what we’re going to be hearing here as part of the Massey Lecture Series, so we (will) get a sort of history of physics to set up the context for what it is you have to say. But I want to begin by going back in your own personal history — you outline in the book your own family history and being from South Africa. I guess when you talk about the untapped potential for innovation and ingenuity in Africa, some of that comes from your own life experience. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

Yes. So as I say in the book I was born into this family that was very committed to ending the apartheid system in South Africa, and I guess I learned from my parents that if you’re committed enough to an idea and it’s the right idea, and in spite of all opposition (if) you keep going, then eventually it’ll succeed. So, you know, we went through a fairly difficult childhood because we were refugees and my parents couldn’t get work, and we moved from one country to the next — but they never gave up hope. And they said South Africa’s going to change, even when they were in a tiny, tiny minority of people as opposed to the government. So I guess I learned from that, to be committed to the things you believe in.

The second thing is they always encouraged us to make friends, even with black people and African people. And when I was in East Africa particularly, at school, (I) probably had the best educational experience I ever had, there. So most of my friends were African kids and I knew they had exactly the same capacities as I had. Then we moved to England, mainly for (mine and my siblings’) education, and went to … university there, but I never really lost the feeling that Africa is a very special place and there are lots of wonderful people there. When I was 17 I had a chance to go back and be a teacher in a small school in Lisutu (Malawi) — a mission school — and this just really confirmed my belief that there’s a huge pool of talent in Africa, and that anybody who talks about developing Africa really should start from that point. You can give food and medicine and send in peacekeeping troops and all of that, but ultimately if you want Africa to stand on its own two feet, it’s all about people. Afriac’s young people are its future, and I think it’s a brilliant future provided they have the chance to educate themselves and get skills and start using all of the things we have today which can make Africa more productive. […] I think there are really huge opportunities, especially for young African people, to become entrepreneurs and to start companies and to be creative with IT (information technology).

So if we really want to help Africa, help at least get the resources to the young people to determine their own future?

Exactly. I use this in the book as an example of a bigger point, which is that our greatest asset as people and as humanity are our minds. The understanding we have of the universe has driven all the technologies in the progress that there has been in the world. And we should focus on that: what’s the best way of enabling, especially young people, (to) develope their minds and use them to discover things and invent things and so on. And Africa is like a wonderful example because all the problems of the world are magnified (there) — we have all these problems everywhere. There’s insufficient attention paid to encouraging young people to be creative and to play with knowledge and to be inventive, and Africa is kind of even worse. And so the problems which everyone faces are visible most clearly in Africa. I mean, what were people thinking — over the last 30, 40 years people have given over a trillion dollars in aid to Africa without hardly any investment in developing skilled people: training doctors, training teachers, training engineers. There’s been very little effort in that direction, and you have to say, what were they doing? They got their priorities wrong, and this is a prime example of how people don’t respect enough the importance of developing our minds and using our minds; they think in very mechanical ways about just giving food and the obvious needs, which must be met — but education can be very cheap. There’s nothing cheaper than telling somebody something.

I want to make a jump here to a question, if that’s all right.

Sure.

Your parents obviously took a moral stand in opposing apartheid, and paid the consequences for it for a few years, I understand.

Yes.

You said it kind of inspired you to stand your ground and do what you feel is right — do what needs to be done. Undoubtedly you’re very passionate about what you do, and there’s nothing more exciting in science right now that quantum physics and what we’re learning from it. Obviously for thousands of years we’ve been developing technology, but in the last 150 years, since the industrial revolution especially, it’s really picked up speed — and these are all things you address in your book. But to the point we’ve developed technology, and to the point that we are cultivating a deeper and more profound understanding of the quantum world, of quantum reality and the cosmos, coinciding with all of that advancement in human understanding of ourselves and the universe, it seems at the exact same time we’ve gotten progressively worse at caring for ourselves and the thing that gives us life, our own planet. So I guess that calls into question, if we have to make a moral judgement on developing our minds — how do we morally justify our continued pursuit of greater knowledge?

And of more and more technologies?

Yes.

My answer to this would be to look back at the Middle Ages, where there began this growing separation between science and society and the humanities. In fact it goes back even to Pythagoras in ancient Greece. Scientists have had a tendency to regard themselves as superior and not to communicate what they are doing and why they are doing (it) very well, and so the rest of society has felt kind of alienated. And the separation has grown, and you can point to certain events, certainly in the case of physics — the invention of the nuclear bomb and the way the military made use of physicists. And so physicists became these kind of technicians who are hidden behind closed doors and can do magical things, but it was a deliberate thing of not wanting them to think too much about why they were doing what they were doing.

…I think of physics as a sort of message from the universe to us — it’s actually a message from the future — giving us very deep insight into nature and how it works and what our future can be.

And then, you know, within society I think these very powerful technologies come along and most people just think, oh it’s just the latest gadget, and they don’t try to understand how it works or why it works or (of it’s) significance, and I think there’s a wonderful message under there which is generally not conveyed, which is that this is the greatest miracle of our existence, that we live in a universe which we can understand and basically is constantly teaching us things. And I think of physics as a sort of message from the universe to us — it’s actually a message from the future — giving us very deep insight into nature and how it works and what our future can be. I think the fact that hardly anyone talks about this is a sign that we have lost our direction as a society, so our focus becomes very much on selfish interests, on over-consumption, and we’ve kind of stopped caring about nature without realizing we are really a part of this and everything we have is a consequence of who we are as a part of nature and a part of the universe.

So in my own little way I’m trying to encourage people to, if you like, rebase themselves as the ancient Greeks did in sort of humility before nature and before the universe and to realize we’re on a journey, and it’s a very long journey, hopefully. All the way along we’ll be learning more and more, and one hopes that comes with wisdom. The other point about the separation of science and society, or physics and the humanities, say, is that when the separation happens the first thing that goes is wisdom because wisdom is not really something you get from physics, you know? Wisdom comes with a much broader perspective of appreciating, like I say, the miracle of being alive and the miracle of the universe. And I think if you see yourselves only as technicians you lose sight of that, so I think in general in our society, wisdom has tended to come from the humanitarians — people like Mandela (and) Bishop Tutu in South Africa, who are not motivated by technology or science but have a huge amount to offer us.

Wisdom comes with a much broader perspective of appreciating … the miracle of being alive and the miracle of the universe.

That’s why I’m kind of respectful of religion, for example. I think one of our greatest challenges in the world is intolerance — it’s not religion. So when scientists kind of bash religious people and imply they’re completely stupid and ignorant, for me that’s extremely unhelpful; it just exacerbates the separation of science and the rest of society, which is exactly what we don’t need.

That brings me to one of the other questions I had for you actually. In the final chapter, the final lecture of the series, The Opportunity of All Time, it’s up to date obviously because you mention the discovery of the Higgs-Boson, which is very recent.

Yes.

It’s also called the God Particle, and from what I understand it’s perhaps one of the most important scientific discoveries of our time…yet it went relatively unnoticed in terms of mainstream consciousness.

Yes, I think so. There was a brief splash of publicity. But my point of view, from the side of physics before the invention of the Higgs Theory, physics was all about particles and forces and we kind of thought about the universe as made up of particles, and the particles interact through forces. What the Higgs is is really our first experimental insight into the vacuum; in other words, the space between the particles. It’s full of stuff, full of this Higgs field. And the Higgs-Boson is really just a ripple in the Higgs field, so we know there’s this vacuum, and we’ve discovered from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that the Higgs is really there — it was anticipated. So this is really spectacular; we’re understanding how the vacuum works and what’s in the vacuum. And secondly, from cosmology we’ve learned that the expansion of the universe is being controlled by energy in the vacuum, of which the Higgs field is a principal component, so these things are coming together.

…[T]here are many aspects of this discovery of Higgs which hint at extreme simplicity in the laws of nature.

There are two ways of exploring the vacuum — the expansion universe and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. And in my view this is opening the way for technologies of, let’s say, a hundred years from now — we will find ways to use this energy in the vacuum, and to use the Higgs field, which is omnipresent.

At the moment we’re still trying to understand exactly how it works. But there are many aspects of this discovery of Higgs which hint at extreme simplicity in the laws of nature. One of the things is that if you extrapolate it to extremely high energies so you can take the measured value at (the LHC), the extrapolation implies that the laws of physics become very simple at the big bang singularity. So this is at the moment a very big clue as to what happened at the big bang and really exciting for the future.

On singularity, the big bang — whatever our current understanding is and whatever we develop our understanding of the origin or origins of the universe to be: Are we ever going to be able to solve the question of how something came from nothing?

The Big Bang Theory

This is now at the heart of physics, this question. At the start of the 20th century there were three big questions for physics, and one of them was about the behaviour of light, one of them was about essentially how heat worked — and that was resolved by quantum theory — and the third one was about what the atom is. At the start of the 21st century there were also three big questions. One is what happened at the big bang singularity? The second one is what is the dark energy and what is it going to do for the future of the universe? And the third one is the behaviour of quantum matter, which we now see as capable of supporting a quantum computer, and so that’s kind of on the medium scale, on the human scale. So these are the big questions and the astonishing thing is that we now have the mathematical tools and theory to really address the problem about what happened at the singularity. So we can make consistent mathematical models of two possibilities: either the big bang was the beginning or it wasn’t. And there are only two possibilities, and now we have models of both. And then, even more exciting, we have experiments which can check both of those models and they’re very clear observational predictions which distinguish between those two theories. So I do expect in the next 10, 20, 30 years, we will be in a position to definitely say if the big bang was the beginning of time or if it was just a violent event in a previously existing universe.

So do you think this is going to have major implication for people’s spiritual basis? I mean, philosophically it’s a huge one because it kind of will support or contradict many arguments for the existence of God.

Well, I don’t see it that way. I think the universe is a miracle either way. [Laughs]. And I think what physics and science offers us is a better appreciation of the details of the universe, and the more we understand the more beautiful it seems to be. And I think all of that just adds to our sense of wonder and privilege that we’re part of it. So for me, whether the big bang was or wasn’t the beginning of the universe has absolutely no implication about religion or God or anything like that.

Science is about investigating things with an open mind and just learning what is real. But I equally think the honest scientists have to recognize that there’s a spiritual side to our existence, and that the fact we exist is a miracle and a wonder.

I mean, I think any Church is unwise to make declarations about scientific questions which they have no particular insights on, and that has always been a mistake. The Catholic Church told us that the Earth was the centre of the universe, (that) the Earth wasn’t going around the Sun, and they were wrong. So, you know, I think it’s just unwise for religious people to make declarations about science.

Science is about investigating things with an open mind and just learning what is real. But I equally think the honest scientists have to recognize that there’s a spiritual side to our existence, and that the fact we exist is a miracle and a wonder, and it is a good thing for people to appreciate that. It makes us humble, it gives us a sense that, you know, there’s something much bigger than us, and I think that adds to our humility and our wisdom. And I’ve often seen that, as in South Africa in fact, the Church takes great credit for the fact that the transition to democracy came peacefully, and they were against revenge and they gave people a lot of moral strength and courage and good values. And that’s not something people would have gotten from science, so I think religion has a lot of positive things to offer the world. So science and religion — I don’t see any real conflict between them. There shouldn’t be a conflict between them.

In the final chapter, again, The Opportunity of All Time, you mention how we’re “poised to understand big bang singularity in physics on a scale so tiny that classical notions of space and time break down.” Now, in the context of the quantum revolution being a paradigm shift, do you think we’re ready for something that big when we can’t even ween ourselves off cell phones and computers, for a breakdown in the notion of space and time?

Yes. In just the last ten years there’ve been some incredible discoveries. They were a little bit too technical for me to try to explain in the book. I mean, in general the cutting edge of physics is very technical, and we only learn how to explain it simply when we master it sufficiently, and so it was very hard for me to explain the details (of) how we are learning to describe the big bang singularity. So this is still a work in progress, but it is spectacularly exciting. I could try to explain it but it won’t be a short explanation. [Laughs] This is just my very strong sense that we are absolutely on the edge of understanding how the big bang happened.

This will probably be my last question, Neil. You allude to a lot of the disturbing things in the present reality of our world right now in your book. Climate change is one of the big ones. There’s, I think, a legitimate sense of extreme urgency, and a few moments ago you mentioned how in the next hundred years we might have some incredible technological advancements that we can’t even conceive of right now. But a lot of what climate science is telling us is that we’re headed for some pretty rough times; with a changing climate there could be (greater) warfare and famines.

Absolutely.

So is there a race against time here at all?

I think there is. I think there is. I don’t have, myself, anything particular — and I didn’t want this to be the focus of the book. I didn’t have anything in the book that can add to the discussion on climate change and all the other problems we face. What I’m hoping to bring to the discussion is a sense that there is this incredible future waiting for us, and let us all forget about our own petty differences and selfish interests and be pragmatic and solve these problems. Because all of these problems, from the financial crisis to the environmental destruction that’s happening, to global warming and growing inequality — all of these things can be solved by pragmatic, straightforward measures, as long as people are rational about them. I have absolute confidence in that. And I think all that I am bringing to the discussion is the sense, hopefully, that this is really worth doing, because we have a really fantastic future ahead if we can just get through these problems.

…[T]oo often people … feel kind of buffeted around by every new crisis and development and they think, oh my god, we can’t possibly solve these problems because nobody can agree on anything and we all live in such a messed up and selfish world. One way around that is to say, no, actually, there’s the things we have in common, which are extremely important and are at the heart of who we are as human beings.

And I think, you know, hopefully that perspective will encourage people to forget about their relatively minor differences because they can realize we are all part of something bigger. You know, the whole of humanity is on this incredible journey of discovery of the universe, and in proving ourselves and our society and our planet. And so I hope it’s a very positive message which will help overcome some of the roadblocks. Because I think the first thing you have to do in solving any problem is to be confident that it can be solved, and to have a sense of purpose that it’s worth solving.

And I think too often people forget that — they just feel kind of buffeted around by every new crisis and development and they think, oh my god, we can’t possibly solve these problems because nobody can agree on anything and we all live in such a messed up and selfish world. [Laughs] One way around that is to say, no, actually, there’s the things we have in common, which are extremely important and are at the heart of who we are as human beings. And one of those is our ability to understand the universe and use it in positive ways. So I’m trying to bring people together with this message, but I totally agree these are urgent problems and they need to be addressed very practically and pragmatically.

That was going to be my last question … but it (seems like) the division, the fragmentation of specialized knowledge is one thing that might have hindered us.

Very much so.

But we’re talking about quantum physics and the universe — that’s all-encompassing. Do you think that within, not only the scientific world, but in humanities too, the liberal arts, a coming together is—

—Is it possible? Yeah. I think it’s essential. I think somehow a reconfiguring of education from school level — you see it very clearly in physics, where many of the people who made the great advances, great discoveries, were oddballs. You know, people like (Paul) Dirac or (Paul) Ehrenfest, who I talk about in the book. These are unusual, special people who often didn’t do things the way that they were supposed to with school, you know? So I think a big part of this is encouraging people to be more creative, to be more different, to explore stuff, to play. James Clark Maxwell — you look at what he did when he was at school; he was writing poetry, and he wasn’t on a fixed track at all as a young person, and that’s exactly what made him so creative. So I do think bringing the science and humanities together (is important) in a way, but the most important thing is to allow people to have more freedom in education and to be more exploratory about knowledge. That’s a huge, huge thing and it means revising our views of schools and universities and technical training and everything, and it’s a massive, massive issue.

Cultivating creativity alongside scientific understanding?

Absolutely. So, in fact, at the Perimeter (Institute) next September, we’re hosting a summit. We had one on energy a year ago, and we’re hosting one on education next time — and it will be precisely on this question: how do you use all the technology we have now but not to make education mechanical, but on the contrary to make it more fun and exploratory and to encourage creativity.

The first of the CBC Massey Lecture Series, “Magic That Works”, happens Wednesday evening, 8 p.m., at the St John’s Arts & Culture Centre. Tickets are $25 each and $15 for students and seniors. For more information, call 729-3900.

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