This book will make you think.
The CBC Massey Lectures are an annual series given by key thinkers, the latest series given by noted theoretical physicist Neil Turok. The Universe Within is an exploration of physics, from classical to quantum, where Turok takes us by the hand and guides us through the history of science right up to string theory and quantum computing.
Turok’s easy style makes this book remarkably approachable: the tone is neither patronizing nor too complex so as to alienate the reader. The initial lectures begin with a review of humankind’s great scientific theories and discoveries, progressing naturally toward a kind of “who’s who” of physics. Yes, all the greats are here: Newton, Planck, Curie, Einstein… But more than that, Turok gives equal attention to some of the less famous physicists, who I am sure are just as well known in that field as their more public colleagues (I fear to name names and reveal my ignorance!). It’s a very good review if you want to brush up, and gives a great starting point for those who have an interest in the sciences but lack formal teaching.
As he goes more in depth into the complex theories, Turok provides ample examples and analogies to help visualize the abstract in a more concrete way. Heck, even Einstein preferred a geometric, classical view of physics, so who are we to disagree? While the examples help, Turok also shows us why some theories can only be explained mathematically, leading us toward the paradigm shift from classical to quantum physics.
Personally, I had always heard terms like ‘quantum physics’ or ‘string theory’ tossed around but I never really understood, even at a basic level, what was meant by them. They just seemed too complex and whenever they were explained I felt overwhelmed. This book did a great job of introducing them slowly so as not to scare me off; by the time things got really confusing in chapter four (“The World in an Equation”) I was already so drawn in that I couldn’t put the book down. Instead, I stared at the complementary bookmark and worked my way through, trying to understand.
Unfortunately, it was a bit like reading Archaic French: I understood the words (more or less), but the overall meaning was lost on me. I would have expected to be turned off, as I had been previously, but found myself wrapped up in it. Turok himself describes the very feeling evoked in me:
. . . I found the very existence of this one-line formula, which summarizes everything we know about physics, hugely motivating. All you have to do is master the language and learn how to calculate, and in principle you understand at a basic level all of the laws governing every single physical process in the universe.
If this doesn’t make you want to be a physicist, nothing will.
But it’s not all numbers and equations. He brings back the philosophic element in chapter three by comparing ancient Greek philosophers to modern physicists and their opposing views. Parmenides of Elea and Plato are equated to the inflationists who believe that everything had a specific point of origin from which everything expanded; Anaximander and Heraclitus are compared to cyclic theorists, who believe there is neither beginning nor end, only an endless cycle of expansion and collapse. Bringing modern science together with ancient thought thrills the classicist in me! Turok attempts to bring in other non-scientific anecdotes as well, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. These attempts in chapter five felt misplaced and were the weak point in an otherwise excellent book.
This book definitely warrants a second read with a highlighter in hand. Thanks, Neil, for reigniting my scientific curiosity.