Neil Turok and the secrets of the universe -

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.


Neil Turok and the secrets of the universe

  1. That was a whole lot of nothing to read.
    1) there is no proof that there is a higgs boston.
    2) You can’t date the universe at 14 billion years old.(based on what.)
    3) The big bang is not mathematically possible. Light cannot travel from stars 14 billion light years away, reach us, expanding universe and all when its traveling away from us at the speed of light. much of that light would be stranded in expanding space actually traveling away from us.

    Its unfortunate that these “theories” seem to become fact. Thats not very scientific.

    • No one thinks the stars are traveling at the speed of light. The further they are from us, the faster they’re moving away from us; by calculating back from that expansion, we can work out that they started flying apart 14 billion years ago. I’m curious: what’s your theory about the cosmologists and astronomers who’ve put together the currently accepted theory, about which you’ve learned so little, and which you find so easy to invalidate? Are they insane or are they liars?

      • Most are not involved in creating such a outlandish theory. Almost no one at all has access to any data, if there is any, to support the claim. Expanding space is one thing, but Stars would have to get out there some how. Red shifts in light are not evidence of a big bang. the Dopler effect would only prove my point. That these stars so far out there should be traveling so fast, compared to us, that light could not travel back.

        Let me simply. If the Universe is 14 billion years old. and stars are 14 billion years getting there. They say the universe is 90 billion light years wide, 45 billion from us each way. for stars to get out there, and shine light to us, it would take light traveling 3 times the speed of light, even if the stars where stationary out there. But they are not, they are expaning according to the big bang theory. Anyway you slice it, the Math is wrong.

        The whole reason someone included expanding space was to explain the distances. (I would think.) but it becomes a problem, cause you have to account for light traveling back, through that expanding space. And, Honestly, there is almost no data out there for us to use. Science hasn’t done its job, but sure has founded a lot of its “beliefs” on this false theory.

        • So a small conspiracy within the cosmologist community has fooled the rest of them, while concealing the evidence that would prove them wrong, even though their theory is so full of holes it can be disproven with some simple arithmetic. Got it. Glad we’re being rational about this.

          Has any defender of the big bang theory addressed the objections you raise? If so, what problems have you found with their response?

          • Actually, i have pointed out this math problem for years, and no one has reasonably expained my objection away. Its unfortunate.

        • Expanding space is unavoidable – the vast majority of light coming from other stars and galaxies is redshifted.
          Yes, the BBT is “just a theory”, but at this point it is pretty well corroborated and is upheld by most in the physics community. It is basically unavoidable when you look at the relevant data. Based on the current expansion (and other data, CMB for example), it seems that the universe had to have “begun” from a singularity.

        • I really think you should read at least a little bit about special relativity before you engage in wild rants about lights speed and the expansion of the universe. Light will not get ‘stranded’ between the light travelling towards us and away from us. Special relativity will clarify how this works for you. I’d recommend you enlighten yourself somewhat with some theory before spouting off with your ridiculous ramblings. It really shows that you have nothing more than perhaps a grade level understanding of physics. You appear to not even know that there are things that you don’t know. The sign of a true fool.

          • Actually, I spent lots of time researching it. Everything from light being a wave to the dopler effect etc. The obvioius failure of the theory I believe is their focus on things like red shift rather than the tangible facts like time and distance of light traveling back to us if the universe is expanding away from us. Its as simple as a guy throwing a baseball out of a moving car. if the car is moving forward faster than the baseball is moving backward, the baseball is actually going the wrong way in relation to the road even though it was thrown against the direction of the car.

            If the big bang was true, then the light, even red shifted light would be traveling away from us, never reaching us, and the universe would be dark.

            There are other reasons the big bang is false, because it creates a beginning in an infinite time line, but that is another story, but the point I am making is about the tangible light and the real math that doesn’t add up. Now, if they had changed their math, (doctored the distances, to cover the mistake, then I might not have noticed. But, now that its found out, the theory must be scrapped.)

            then the dangerous question arises, how did we get here? That question is thee question, even with a big bang. how did the big bang really get here. lets have some real repeatable science, lets have some tangible testible data. And that is a real problem. (a problem worse than my spelling.)

          • Look up and watch a lecture by Sir Roger Penrose called Eons before the Big Bang.

          • Spelling mistake **Aeons before the big bang.

        • Even though most of us have seen the light, its surprising to see that there are some who still live in the dark ages even with millions of years of documented fossil evidence. Creationists can’t accept science because it overwhelms their limited intelligence. They cannot discard their belief that they are special or superior in this reality. Science constantly slaps them in the face and has done so for hundreds of years and yet, to them, the earth is still flat apparently. Trillions of galaxies each containing trillions of stars. We are not special, or superior, we are just 1 species on 1 planet, in 1 solar system, in 1 galaxy, amongst thousands if not hundreds of thousands of habitable planets. The odds are just to great to ignore, except of course for creationists.

    • Well, the neat thing about science is that whether you choose to believe
      in it or not, it’s still true. Discussions about our origins always
      bring out the “special cases” who believe that the world is a few
      thousand years old. Taking the position that evolution is a hoax
      necessitates a trip back to high school biology. Debating its existence and relevance is akin to debating the existence of gravity – the proof is all around you.
      Religious leaders had their chance to govern the civilized world, it
      was called the dark ages. It’s time for communities of science to lead
      us from our dark superstitions into scary but real understandings of the
      physical world so that we can confront the challenges our species faces
      with the information we need to make smart decisions about our

      • We all need to agree to believe that the calculations have merit in explaining reality. But, this doesn’t prove that only calculations have merit in reality. It only proves that we can all agree with them. That’s what makes science so powerful.
        What seems to be disappointing is how scientists evaluate the importance of these numbers and how they control which numbers to calculate. Maybe scientists should spend some time on calculating what an outsiders point of view is. Afterall, reality is everyone perspective combined.

      • While Evolution is a Hoax is obviously ignorant of how science “works”, you are pretty ignorant about history. Overall, the religious institutions of the west had a lot more to do with preserving and encouraging science than they did with suppressing it. Stereotypes and caricatures abound in the general person’s understanding of the middle ages. If you really study that period in depth you will see that most people’s representations of it are simply unfair and inaccurate.

        • Kindly don’t try ‘the church was actually a friend to science’ routine in a public forum like this.

          You’ll just embarrass yourself.

          • Yes, with friend like that, who needs enemies?
            My Catholic high school in Ireland gave me a good science education but what it gave with one hand it took away with the other, by confusing everything studied with religious bafflegab.

      • Even if you believe something that is wrong, doesn’t make it fact. That is what your saying. Science rather is the knocking of heads, coming up with testable proofs, and the vetting of theories.

        I am just participating in the Scientific debate, and that is good. Don’t send out a witch hunt for me cause I am helping the truth come out. This is exactly what good Science is all about. At one time they thought h20 was hO2, but then found out the truth. So don’t shoot the guy who is advancing good science. you should thank me.

        • Your rebuttal is so full of logical fallacies that to agree with any part of your statement would make us both wrong. You’re comparing two entirely different…actually, I don’t even want to deconstruct that wreck. Religion loves to write off the unknown as immeasurable, mysterious, and beyond our comprehension – the last few hundred years, more specifically the last 50 years have seen us jump forward in our understandings of the universe that mere extrapolation of our current progress provides such great promise that it’s almost difficult to imagine where we will be in even a few years. There are satellites that CAN see back to just before the big bang, light travels at a speed faster than the expansion of the universe (but one day that could change, destroying us at the molecular level), mankind is also in the process of building a series of measurement devices that use lasers to measure magnetic waves between them (which will take us even closer to the dawn of the universe, back to the rise of complexity). We aren’t entirely sure how old the universe is because we are still building new ways of looking back in time, but right now, 14.1 billion years is what it appears to be. And evolution is real, look at your parents, and now at yourself. Similarities? Now ask yourself why women prefer men with deep voices, big muscles, or big bank accounts. Mate selection, evolution. Now ask yourself how species adapt to changing environmental conditions through reproduction and survival of the fittest (i.e. Darwin’s finches). Bam. Evolution. Case closed. There are so many free educational resources on this stuff that public ignorance like this should almost be embarrassing. << start here. You should thank me.

        • Thanks, you’re smart and productive.

    • your smart!

    • There iS proof of profound ignorance, though; just one person as uninformed as you and 32 shaking their heads in amazement!

  2. @Scott_G:disqus Against ignorance, the gods themselves struggle in vain. A “Higgs Boston” that’s a good one.

    • No, it’s “boredom”, not “ignorance” (against which you are apparently struggling unaware). You got the Nietzsche quote wrong. And if it’s the Schiller quote, it’s “stupidity”, not “ignorance”, though those slightly related traits are exhibited in all your ‘writings’ quite nicely The hoax is maybe you. And there is a difference between a boson and a boston, of which more than one of the latter exist, though no one would expect you to know that.

  3. This should prove to be an incredible lecture series – the Perimeter Institute is one of Canada’s shining examples of research, and their contributions to the field of Physics and Astronomy has been invaluable. There are few fields of research whose governmental investments have such a high ROI, they are asking questions whose answers necessitate the invention of new technologies to quantify them. The byproducts of these inventions have been immeasurably successful (for example, Tim Berners Lee inventing the world wide web at CERN to share information between scientists). It’s time for everyone to get excited about Physics and Astronomy, understanding our origins, our place in the universe and the nature of our very unique existence might just be humbling enough for us all to encourage some of humanities better traits.

  4. “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.”

    I am curious – how is the “geometric mean” of the Planck and Hubble lengths calculated? Do we get the same result if it is assumed that the Planck length is zero and the Hubble length is infinity?

    • The Planck length can’t be zero, because it has some dimension. Likewise the Hubble length can’t be infinite because it has a bound. To calculate the geometric mean you simply express each length in the same units (any unit will work) and multiple them together, then take the square root. What you will end up with is the approximate size of a living cell in the same units you started with. This is the geometric mean, also the key principle behind the “golden ratio” so prevalent in both art and nature.

    • In simple terms, it means that if you take the cell length, and divide by “n” and it gives you the Plank length, then starting with the cell length again, MULTIPLYING by “n” will give you the Hubble length.

      If you count from 1 to 9, 5 is the arithmetic mean (you can subtract and add the same amount to find the endpoints), but 3 is the geometric mean (you can divide and multiply the same amount to find the endpoints).

      • No, the geometric mean of the numbers from 1 to 9, namely, the 9th root of their product, is a bit more than 4, which anyone with a computer can quickly check, and I hope they do.

  5. “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”

    Maybe after people like Mr. Harper’s government get the toss…until then….
    Ok! Joking….

    (sort of)

  6. “Why are we here?” Physics will never answer that question. Physics has never answered the “why”, it only answers the “how”. “How does the apple fall from the tree?” Not. “Why is there such a thing as gravity?” “Why is the universe one way and not another?” The anthropic principle doesn’t count.
    I think it is the media that creates this false debate between science and religion. It sells. That, and physicists “selling” their research to justify amazing expenditures. To claim that you are going to answer the question “Why are we here?” is ignorance at best, fraud at worst. None of these experiments will ever answer the “Why” question.
    Science allows us to marvel at the universe, its vastness, and the miracle that it is. If you choose not to find it amazing, that is your choice, but clearly it is. That science allows us to do this is valuable.

  7. This will be VERY interesting. I myself believe the Universe to be pointless and just merely existing; but it’d be interesting to view it through another’s eyes. I’m definately open minded about the subject.

    • Agreed. You’re right, there is no point to the universe. It exists. And so do we. Eventually we will die, find ourselves back in the earth, a great amount of time will pass, the sun will explode and likely take our planet with it, and everything that we were is spewed out into space to form new discs around new stars, maybe becoming planets, maybe hosting life, maybe giving rise to complex life so that we can eventually sit in front of glowing rectangles and argue with each other over great distances. It’s beautiful.

  8. Hey Macleans and/or Rogers or whomever runs the show here….

    More of this please, and a lot less of Barbara Amiel commenting about circumcisions.


  9. “Many scientists, for example, express the viewpoint that the universe seems pointless at a deep level, and that our situation is somehow tragic.” Yes, I’ve heard this academic claptrap on more than one occasion. I would suggest that if it seems pointless, at a deep level, try going deeper and with wider vision.

  10. “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.”

    You have to be kidding! Sounds good, but in the reality of academic, departmental politics, it isn’t true. Go ahead and argue against the accepted paradigm, if you’re a student – argue against the research focus and slant of a department, and see how far it gets you. You may find yourself on the outside, looking in….

    • you know this first hand?

  11. How we mere mortals view the universe, is conditional on our frame of reference, or our perspective. Two objects (A and B) traveling 99% the speed of light in the same direction at the same speed to an observer on board either one, the other appears stationary. Add a third observer (C) on a stationary platform as the two objects (A and B) pass their lengths will appear contracted, (special relativity Lorentz Factor) to the observer on (C) but to the observer on either of the two moving objects viewing the other there will be no observable length differences, to the observer on the stationary platform the two moving objects will gain mass, but to the observers on the moving objects neither will see the other (A or B) gaining mass.

    What we do know, with any certainty (according to general and special relativity) is the Universe as we know it exists between two temperatures, 0 Kelvin, and Plank temperature, (10-32 kelvin) the coldest and hottest it can get. Temperature is the only universal constant, present throughout the universe. Even the speed of an object has no upper limits according to special relativity, but temperature does. Einstein claimed that black holes couldn’t exist, but they do, he also claimed the universe isn’t expanding but the general consensus is that it is in fact expanding he also claimed the cosmic speed limit is the speed of light, maybe for light it is but not for physicists are now using Einstiens equasions to show that FTL speed is possible.

    Our perception of the Universe is dependant on our speed in relation to the rest of the Universe,which will determine our observations of it’s speed it’s mass and it’s rate of expansion but those observations will only be true for us, and from another perspective such as a faster or slower moving observation platform the observations will produce a different observational result, in respect to speed, mass, and expansion of the Universe.

  12. Science…. I fell in love with her as a boy and have never recovered. She will hold me until my last breath, and hopefully beyond. I agree with Neil, we are faced with the opportunity of all time – the best of any time since the beginning of the universe.

  13. When you look at your favourite food, do you sit there and wonder about it’s particle nature, or do you just enjoy it?
    Not that I am against science I’m not, it provides us with some wonderful things (sometimes) it’s just that I don’t need to understand everything that exists and why would I want to?
    I would rather just enjoy life and love that which holds lifes greatest possibilities, for me.
    Walt Whitman: When I Heard the Learn’d Astonomer

  14. Today we have Bob McDonald and David Suzuki in Canada, and Sir David Attenborough in Britain, and Neil Tyson in the USA who are all excellent at explaining and proselytising science. We could use some more, but the quality of this roster must intimidate any newcomers. It is too bad we lost our poet laureate scientist, Carl Sagan at such a young age.