Neil Turok, The Universe Within

Look, I wish I didn’t need books like The Universe Within.

I wish I could confidently recite Newton’s laws of motion, or the basics of general relativity, off the top of my head. At the very least I wish I paid more attention in high school science classes (though I also wish my high school didn’t make me choose between physics and English literature in grade 12—a dilemma that ended up having a huge impact on my life trajectory).

Unfortunately, like a lot of people, my knowledge of even the simplest building blocks of science is woefully inadequate. So when someone like Neil Turok, a South African-born physicist and author who works with Stephen Hawking (at least we know who that is, right? Right?), signs up to give this year’s Massey Lectures, the only correct thing to do is pull up a chair, stop passing notes, spit out that gum, and listen to the teacher.

Mercifully, Turok’s style is breezy and accessible, and he favours a kind of pop history approach to science rather than getting bogged down in equations. If you come in looking for proofs, you’ll be disappointed. But if you want to learn the gist of things? Don’t even worry about it. Turok has gist for days.

He gives readers a kind of scientific and mathematical highlight reel, starting in 35,000 BCE and a fossilized baboon leg bone with notches carved in it. We visit Pythagoras in ancient Greece, James Clerk Maxwell in the Scottish Enlightenment, and Einstein in last century’s quantum upheaval. Along the way the universe expands, contracts, turns infinitely hot, bounces like a ball, and becomes seven-dimensional—all as our conception of science keeps evolving and reinventing itself. It’s a permanent work in progress.

Because Turok never stops to dig in and show why any of these new developments checked out, The Universe Within can still sometimes feel like a classroom lecture that’s zooming over your head. But all readers will come away with something valuable—if nothing else, Turok’s optimism about the future of scientific development is contagious. He also speaks with real passion about the importance of global science education, whether that’s arguing for a 21st-century “Canadian Enlightenment,” or hoping that the next Einstein will be African.

And if you’re one of the few remaining dummies who thinks that scientists are only out to push their own selfish agendas, consider an old photo Turok draws attention to. It’s from 1927, and depicts a murderer’s row of physicians and mathematicians, including Einstein, Marie Curie, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and Niels Bohr, at a conference in Brussels. These people are leading a legitimate scientific revolution, yet they all look miserable. Why? Because quantum theory upended pretty well everything scientists knew about how the universe worked. Now they had to scrap centuries of good, hard work, and go right back to the drawing board.

As Heisenberg, the young German prodigy, put it, “Almost every progress in science has been paid for by a sacrifice; for almost every new intellectual achievement, previous positions and conceptions had to be given up. Thus, in a way, the increase of our knowledge and insight diminishes continually the scientist’s claim on ‘understanding’ nature.”

You can pretty much hear him sighing and rubbing his temples. So much for selfishness.

House of Anansi, 280 pp., $19.95, paperback

(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, November 1, 2012)