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Neil Turok's Universe Within

Renowned physicist talks impressing Stephen Hawking, enabling young scientists, and deciphering 'what banged.'

Tyler Harbottle 13 Oct

Tyler Harbottle is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver.

Neil Turok knows he's doing a good job of running Canada's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics because Stephen Hawking told him so.

In a visit last month, Hawking told Turok the institute is one of the leading centres for theoretical physics in the world, if not the top centre.

That the world's foremost theoretical physicist thinks the Waterloo-based Perimeter Institute -- a place Turok admits he was only "dimly aware of" 10 years ago -- is a success, isn't just high praise for the 54-year-old, South African-born physicist; it also says something about the state of scientific inquiry in Canada.

"It is incredibly important for societies to create the conditions in which people can invent and discover and create new things," says Turok. "People need to realize this incredible chance to make a society that will set an example for the world," he says of Canada today.

What Turok is attempting to do at the Perimeter Institute is foster the conditions under which the human mind can freely seek to understand the universe and, in so doing, develop revolutionary technologies that may fundamentally alter the human experience along the way. It's also a focus of his new book, The Universe Within, which draws from the five Massey Lectures Turok will deliver to thousands of Canadians across the country over the next two weeks.

Turok is the 51st speaker tapped by the Massey Committee to deliver the lectures, an annual series of talks on philosophy, science and culture. Before Turok, the Masseys hosted such preeminent thinkers as Northrop Frye, Martin Luther King Jr., Noam Chomsky and Margaret Atwood.

Unsure of whether the first of his five lectures, which took place Wednesday in St. John's, Newfoundland, would draw a crowd, Turok says he was concerned.

"I wasn't sure what would happen in Newfoundland. You know, it's a thousand-seat hall," he says, speaking over the phone from Montreal, his voice fatigued and layered with the gravelly hoarseness of a touring rock star.

Talking scientific theories that span millennia and broaching theoretical topics that only a handful of people in the world truly understand doesn't necessarily scream "sold-out show." But sure enough Turok delivered his lecture, titled "Magic That Works," to a packed Arts and Culture Centre in St. John's.

"They had to turn people away. We had about 200 people lined up to sign books afterward," Turok says. "I think what I'm saying -- I don't quite understand why -- is resonating with people."

A Canadian enlightenment?

Having accepted the director position at Perimeter in 2008, Turok compares his new Canadian home today with Scotland in the 18th century, a period of Enlightenment. At the time thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume crafted their economic, political and philosophical theories in the halls of Scottish universities like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen -- modest places compared to their English counterparts to the south.

"This happened in Scotland, and it wasn't an accident," says Turok. "The government wanted to create a unique public school system, and four universities when England only had two. This is a kind of daring initiative they took, and very deliberate," he says. "You had an incredible culture within the universities of boldness and originality and foundational thinking, which spawned engineers, scientists and so on."

Canada today, says Turok, "feels like a haven of civilization," when compared to the "modern Rome to its south" -- just as Scotland thrived in the shadow of its colonial neighbour.

"If you look at Canada compared to Scotland in the 18th century, 21st century Canada has considerably more advantages. It has unbelievable natural resources, it has a basically peaceful, diverse society." These are the elements necessary for a thriving scientific community, Turok says.

"From my point of view, as a physicist, I'm aware of the general quality of the science done in Canada, which has always been high and [Canadians have] always been leaders in technology, like nuclear physics as an example," he says. "But it is a very modest country. I think that hurts it, that people are not brash enough to go after the hardest problem, and then if they succeed to make sure that everyone else knows about it."

Dream of an African Einstein

Born in apartheid-era South Africa to political activist parents -- both of whom served prison sentences before fleeing with their young son to East Africa -- Turok credits his upbringing for much of his infatuation with the natural world. While attending primary school in Tanzania he was encouraged to explore nature, experiment, build and dismantle things and test the fundamental theories of physics, like Isaac Newton's universal laws of motion -- the types of theories that would eventually underpin Turok's entire career.

But growing up in Africa also ingrained in him a dedication to help a continent in dire need.

"All the problems which you find elsewhere are sort of magnified [in Africa]," Turok says.

Turok says he lives a dual existence: in one life he tries to "understand how to describe the beginning and the far future of the universe," and in the other, he is "fascinated by the problem of how to enable young people to enter science, especially in the developing world.

"When you look at Africa and you say they need medicine and food and clean water and electricity, yes they do. These things are all very important," he says, speaking with the fluid and considered purposefulness of a seasoned lecturer. "But what is really going to drive the progress of Africa is the development of minds, especially young minds who are then going to be able to manage systems and create companies and wealth, and become scientists and use technologies to solve Africa's problems."

In 1994, after the fall of the apartheid regime, Turok's parents returned to South Africa to take political positions alongside Nelson Mandela in the African National Congress. It was the start of "the new South Africa," and Turok started looking for a way to contribute. In 2003 he founded AIMS, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, located in a suburb of Cape Town.

"This is a story about bringing together very talented young people, bringing the best teachers in the world to teach them, believing in them and encouraging them to go after all sorts of problems," Turok says of the institute, which earned him the TED Prize in 2008.

"My wish is that you help us unlock and nurture scientific talent across Africa, so that within our lifetimes we are celebrating an African Einstein," reads Turok's TED Wish, which he credits with helping to raise awareness for AIMS.

AIMS has grown since then, with centres in Ghana, Senegal and Cape Town.

"I wish society knew more about science and how important it has been throughout history. For me, humanity has been on a journey and over the last two millennia science has played a huge role in that journey, certainly over the last 300 years. It has probably been the driving factor in that journey," Turok says.

"So it is really crazy to me that people don't learn in school about where all these things came from, about Newton and Maxwell, about the discoveries that founded the modern world."

What banged?

Before Turok took the post as director of Perimeter, he held the Chair of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, where he first caught Hawking's attention. At the time Hawking was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, the same position Isaac Newton held more than 300 years ago.

Eventually Turok and Hawking collaborated on a theory -- the Hawking-Turok Instanton Theory -- that tries to explain the state of things at the very beginning of the universe.

It's complex stuff. But inspired by a Scottish expat schoolteacher who once taught Turok in Tanzania, he boils down the jargon to one succinct question: What banged? The instant the universe came to be, the so-called "big-bang," has attracted competing theories. The victor, says Turok, will be revealed within the next 20 years. It's the topic of Toruk's third lecture, which he will deliver at the University of British Columbia's Chan Centre on Tuesday, Oct. 16.

"It's all about the story of cosmology, how we've understood in the last 20 years a huge amount about the universe," Turok says. "[The lecture] will be based on the competition of ideas about what exactly happened at the big bang singularity itself and the two rival theories: that the big bang was the beginning, or that it wasn't. Both of them have mathematical frameworks, and I really believe that in the next 10 or 20 years we will solve the problem through a combination of mathematical theory and observations which probe the moment of singularity."

For more from The Tyee's conversation with Turok, which addressed quantum theory, analogue beings in a digital world and the three most important questions we don't have answers for, read on:

On the ultimate questions facing humanity (from a physicist's perspective):

"At the beginning of the 20th century, Lord Kelvin -- for whom the temperature scale was named after, one of the great physicists -- named three great problems that physics is trying to resolve. He thought they were relatively small problems. One was to do with the behaviour of light, and resolving that led to relativity, which of course is the basis for nuclear energy, GPS, all these things. The second one, he said, was the structure of the atom. The third was a discrepancy between Maxwell's theory of radiation and the theory of heat. Both of those second two gave rise to quantum mechanics, which, of course, gave rise to everything from lasers to electronics and transistors and so on.

"The question, then, is what are the problems today whose solutions will have similarly huge impacts? I think there are clearly three problems which are similar to the ones of 20th century. One is, what happened at the big bang? At the beginning of the 20th century they didn't even know there was a big bang. So we've learned there was one and have learned a lot about it and are close to having theories to describe it and make predictions, and then test those with satellites.

"That's on the small scale. On the very large scale, vacuum energy has been one of the greatest discoveries of the century: that empty space is full of energy and it is the most dominant form of energy in the universe and we don't yet understand what it is. But we do know that it is completely going to control our future because it is making the universe expand ever faster. What it is and whether we can use it is, as far as I can see, is the second great challenge for physics in the 21st century. Dark matter I would put there, too. If we detect the dark matter, which may happen in the next few decades -- there's one of the world leading facilities in Canada, SNOLAB, trying to detect the dark matter in an underground lab two kilometres underground -- that could also be extremely useful and important.

"And then the third one, which is probably the most predictable of the three and the closest, is the behaviour of quantum matter. All of our electronics today are based on the transistor which was invented in the '50s and that was based on quantum mechanics, but quantum mechanics of single particles, of electrons traveling through wires and material. What we've learned is that electrons have much more interesting properties when they interact and become what we call entangled quantum mechanically. So you have collective behaviour of this entangled system of electrons, which is much more interesting and potentially vastly more powerful."

On quantum theory and why the qubit is so much better than the bit:

"The basis of digital information is the bit, which is a zero or a one. The basis of quantum information is the qubit, or the quantum bit. You can picture a zero or a one -- it is just a light bulb that is on or off. But a quantum bit is more like the sky. So if you think of a point anywhere on the sky, its position is the information. And that's what a quantum bit has -- an infinite amount of information from the whole sky. The quantum bit is something carried by a single electron, the spin of a single electron -- the most elementary constituent of matter that we know would carry a whole sky's worth of information.

"It turns out that if you take just 300 electron spins and couple them together into a quantum computer, then the amount of information it would be capable of handling is the same as that in the position of every particle in the whole universe. There are about 10 to the power of 90 particles in the universe and if you use each one of their three-dimensional positions and imagine recording all of those positions, that's about the same as what you would get from just 300 electrons in a quantum computer. So it really is on a whole different scale from anything we can visualize in our mind."

On how your future personal computer will know answers to questions you didn't know you had:

"The quantum computer will make everything we have look like peanuts. It just operates on a whole new level of information. I think that is really around the corner, that we will see information technology advance to a whole new level. This could have enormous impacts on society if we were able to monitor ourselves, our bodies, our health and our environment constantly and with precision using quantum detectors and quantum electronics. It would change everyone's lives, completely.

"I speculate that if we do manage to make a quantum computer -- and it doesn't seem so far away -- that this is the beginning of a new stage of life, where just as our genetic code is digital and it codes for us as analogue beings, we will be more or less the DNA for a new form of life, which is quantum and which operates on a whole different level. It is essentially one where there is much greater awareness of all the possibilities rather than thinking about the world in such a definite space, which is really all we can get our minds around. That's more or less the way in which quantum things work. They exist in all possible states all the time."

On the future of humanity, the battle of ideas:

"The future is obviously not about survival of the fittest. Natural selection is no longer the force that is determining our evolution. Not being eaten by lions and tigers isn't it anymore. The future is all about information. It's all about the transfer of information and, if you think of it as a battle, it is a battle of ideas. The way the world is working now, the way society is working, is depending more and more on information technologies and programmers. We know this. Google is following our every move all the time. How do we go along with that? Who is doing the programming? These things are very important. It's true, it may sound dystopian, but I'm not a pessimist at all. I think the progress of technology, especially in reaching the quantum level, will open a whole new realm of opportunity. You may also say it opens opportunities for criminals, just as much as everyone else. But it is up to us to make sure those new technologies are used for positive purposes."  [Tyee]

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