The Universe Within by Neil Turok

Universe Within

Longlisted for the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize

An Amazon.ca Best Book ~ 2012

If I would have worked harder at math in high school, I would have been an astrophysicist. The cosmos fascinates me; the study of physics of attempts to answer the most fundamental question in all of existence: how did we get here? Physics and cosmology play with such fantastic ideas that it makes your head spin. Spacetime, the Big Bang singularity, black holes, quantum particles, a multiverse, 11 spacial dimensions, and imaginary numbers like the square root of negative 1 are all fascinating topics. Who hasn’t been fascinated by Schrodinger’s Cat and who hasn’t looked up who Heisenberg was after watching Breaking Bad? Neil Turok’s The Universe Within, the 2012 Massey Lecture series, is an examination of the history of physics, how physics has shaped our world, and a philosophical treatise on the power of human mind. The Universe Within, particularly the fifth and final chapter, is an epic examination of science and is a very powerful read.

Turok, a world renowned physicist, explores the development of physics through its major stages. He looks at the contributions of the Greeks like Pythagoras, Newton and the beginning of classical physics, Einstein and the physics renaissance of the early 20th century, and the current quantum revolution. Throughout this history, Turok gives insights into his own experiences as a student of physics while growing up in Africa, giving back to the continent, and what the future of science in Africa may hold. He speaks very passionately about this subject and has great hope for the developing world. His prevailing question seems to be “what would happen of all seven billion of Earth’s minds fulfilled their potential?” This is certainly a great question to ask.

I LOVE the Massey Lecture books and this was a fantastic entry, but it didn’t knock off A Short History of Progress as my favorite (but I think Wright’s book was one of the most important pieces of writing in the last half-century). Of all the Massey Lecture’s I’ve read though, Turok’s book was certainly the most thoroughly and widely researched, covering not only science but history, philosophy, and literature. My one criticism of the book is that, at certain points, maybe a total of 20 pages, Turok gets way too technical for the average reader. There were times that he was elucidating mathematical formulae that were so complicated that I kind of zoned-out. But, with that being said, with some very very complicated theories, like the singularity, inflation, quantum mechanics, and string theory, Turok did a masterful job of “dumbing-it-down,” so to speak, for us non-scientists. (I tell my wife I’m a scientist all the time, but apparently studying the literary history of small islands doesn’t make me one…in her opinion).

The last chapter of this book absolutely blew me away. If you don’t have time to sit down and read a 250 page book, buy this title, and just read the final 50 page chapter. In it, Turok discusses the coming age of quantum computing. In addition to humanity approaching the end of its supply of non-renewable resources, it seems, according to Turok, that we are 20 years away, at most, from reaching the finite maximum computing speed using existing technology (because transistors in CPUs are limited by the size of an atom, and right now they are not much larger than that now). His discussion on the development and ramifications of quantum computing were fascinating.

Turok’s primary theme is that the human mind seems to have no limits. In our short time as a civilization, we have already mapped the visible universe, discovered the Higgs Boson, and are on the brink to solving the mystery of the Big Bang. Personally, I also think we are also on the brink of “discovering” a multiverse, travelling faster than light, and finding evidence of extraterrestrial life. Within his scientific writing, Turok is very humble about his place in the world (he has an astrophysics equation named after him) and he is also somewhat critical of the wider study of science. He advocates for a return to a common 18th and 19th century practice of public scientific lectures and making scientific research a part of everyday culture and thinking, removing the disconnect between the lab and the wider-world.

Even someone with the most rudimentary understanding of science will enjoy this book. If you enjoy science and are fascinated by the universe, this is a must read. In time, I think The Universe Within will join other books like A Brief History of Time, The Elegant Universe, and Cosmos in the canon of popular-science classics.

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