From Quantum to Cosmos: The Universe Within

The science of the matter

Andrea Kohler reviews From Quantum to Cosmos, an insightful exploration of physics by Neil Turok

BY ANDREA KOHLER

For a science junkie, a book recommended by three of the big names in popular science exposition – Brian Greene, Sir Roger Penrose, and Brian Cox is a must-read. And for a South African science junkie, living in Cape Town, it promises even more than that.

Neil Turok’s is a seminal South African story. Born to well-known anti-apartheid activists Ben and Mary Turok, and taken with them into exile at the age of 6 – first to Tanzania and then to England –Turok now lives and works in Canada, where he is director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He has held positions at Princeton and Cambridge; collaborated with Stephen Hawking, arguably the most famous name in physics today; and been awarded some of the discipline’s most prestigious prizes. With the death of apartheid, Turok’s parents returned to South Africa, and inspired him to found the African Institute of Mathematics and Science (AIMS) in Muizenburg, Cape Town.

So how to read From Quantum to Cosmos? This book is undoubtedly about physics. Turok recounts the story of modern science from Newton’s equations of classical mechanics, through Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism, to Einstein’s theory of relativity and the work of the quantum physicists, Planck, Heisenberg, and Dirac. Extending the story to the field of cosmology, Turok describes the discovery in 1964, by Penzias and Wilson, of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the existence of which was taken to prove, almost irrefutably, the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe (this radiation is understood to be the left over ‘hiss’ of the Big Bang). This is a fascinating story, and Turok tells it with contagious enthusiam. His explanations of difficult concepts are often exquisitely clear. Reading From Quantum to Cosmos is the first time I have fully understood why the problem of black body radiation (exotically termed the “ultraviolet catastrophe”) necessitated the proposal, by Max Planck, of a quantum theory of light, which ultimately resulted in the birth of quantum physics.

In broader strokes, Turok traces the story of physics back to the Greek philosophers and forward to the very latest developments – in cosmology on the one hand, and quantum “computing” on the other – and offers us tantalising insights into works as far apart as the philosophy of David Hume and the fictional works of Mary Shelley.

Turok also describes the establishment of AIMS. His goal to develop excellence in the mathematical sciences in Africa, “so that within our lifetimes we are celebrating an African Einstein”, is a focal point for his optimistic ideas regarding “science and humanity”. He relates the flowering of Jewish science in the early 20th Century, as a consequence of previous oppression and exclusion, to a similar potential now existing in Africa and the developing world. He also suggests that, by sheer weight of numbers, humanity now has the best chance ever of finding answers to the biggest issues and questions it faces; at the same time, the great achievements of science have the capacity to truly unite all of humanity.

Despite some hugely interesting ideas, the book is ultimately unsatisfying. Turok makes big, sometimes almost naïve, claims for the mathematical sciences. A chapter in which he describes “the formula that summarises all the known laws of physics” is titled “The world in an equation”. In the detail of the chapter, one realises just how much work still needs to be done. I am reminded of claims, at the end of the 19th Century, that all the laws of physics had been discovered, and the outstanding problems were solvable using these laws. In his response to Mary Shelley’s cautionary tale of the dangers of scientific arrogance, Turok maintains that “The monster Shelley envisaged Dr. Frankenstein creating has not materialised” ­– here one has to wonder what the survivors of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Fukushima, and countless other disasters directly attributable to the misuse of science would think. One is left somewhat nervous when Turok dovetails the futures of science and of humanity. Finally, when he issues the clarion call for science in the developing world, one can’t help but notice that it is done from a First World country.

For all the wrong reasons, this book also highlights, unintentionally of course, the value of good editing, noticeable by its absence. The reader is buffeted about between brilliantly explained scientific concepts and some that come across like equations literally translated into English (where one feels like the whiteboard is missing). In parts one emerges from sections that require intense concentration, to find oneself without warning trying to follow Turok’s about-turn into the human story. In the detail also, there are turns of phrase that seem “wrong” – so “Heisenberg discovered his uncertainty principle” and Pauli “invented the Pauli exclusion principle”. Ultimately, to the South African science junkie, setting the year of Mandela’s release from prison as 1993 instead of 1990, seems the worst editorial crime.

Apparently From Quantum to Cosmos is the result of a series of lectures, a reference to which would have explained aspects of the structure, including repetition, that otherwise frustrate.  In his discussion of the digital age later in the book, Turok draws extensively on the prophetic writings of Marshall McLuhan, probably best known for the aphorism “the medium is the message”.  In the case of From Quantum to Cosmos, the medium seems to hampers the message.

From Quantum to Cosmos is published by Faber & Faber and is available from Kalahari.com.

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