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The Universe Within shows how physics is the key to everything

The Universe Within
Neil Turok
292 pages

Neil Turok's tour through the physics of the universe, as best we understand it right now, is rather seductive. His writing style is easy, his sense of humour is gentle, and his personal revelations are sometimes quite touching.

Take, for instance, his story of being a boy in South Africa, sent to live with his grandmother after his mother and father were imprisoned for opposing apartheid. His grandmother was religious, unlike his parents, and wee Neil was introduced to this marvellous book called the Bible. He begged his grandmother for a pocket edition so he could carry it with him wherever he went, even though he could not yet read.

"What I most wanted," Turok writes in The Universe Within, "even at that early age, was to capture and hold the truth, with the certainty and love that it brings."

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Anyone who has pondered the Big Questions of our universe would have no difficulty understanding why Turok ended up working in cosmology, the study of the universe. He does not, however, touch on the disillusionment that so often follows the euphoria of thinking that we have finally found the Truth (whatever that may be), only to find it isn't there after all.

Still, the pocket Bible story is a charming entry into Turok's book of five substantial chapters, consisting of his public talks in the 2012 CBC Massey Lecture Tour, a cross-country event. The lectures are recorded for broadcast on CBC-Radio's Ideas in November.

I met Turok about 10 years ago when I was a summer-school undergraduate studying at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England, and he was a professor at the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics, working with Stephen Hawking. I pestered him to let me work with him on a research project, which was rather cheeky of me. But he had no time for the theoretical limitations of wet-behind-the-ears undergrads. He was working on a completely different plane. Still, his lectures were quite interesting, and I was pleased when he took on the job of running the Perimeter Institute, a bold theoretical physics institute in Waterloo, Ont., founded by RIM entrepreneur Mike Lazaridis.

I was predisposed to like Turok's book, and burst out laughing reading his description of the glum faces in the famous formal photograph of physicists at the 1927 Solvay conference in Brussels. The famous scientists who developed quantum physics – Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli – and the rest were, Turok said, unhappy about giving up certainty for the improbability of the quantum world.

Just hours earlier, before starting Turok's book, I had given a talk at a physics colloquium about that same photograph. In my lecture, Niels Bohr was unhappy because he and Heisenberg had fallen out over wave-particle duality and were no longer on speaking terms; Heisenberg was no longer speaking to Pauli because Pauli was helping Bohr with the duality problem; Pauli was despairing over being turned down yet again for a job as a professor; and Born was heading for yet another nervous breakdown over fears his wife was having an affair (she was). They may, indeed, have all have been uncomfortable with the direction of quantum physics, but they had other worries as well.

Still, I quickly recognized the danger of Turok's easy, personal writing style seducing the reader into believing that physicists have done a grand job of figuring out the universe, from the very, very small to the very, very large … except for a few pesky details. The current "concurrence model," Turok says, "has, over the past decade, enjoyed one success after another as all kinds of observations fell in line with it. So far there are no clouds on the horizon."

In this model, the recipe for the universe calls for 73 per cent unknown dark energy, 22 per cent unknown dark matter, 5 per cent ordinary matter and radiation. Not knowing what makes up 95 per cent of the universe would seem to be a pretty darned big cloud.

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Turok further disappoints when he lapses into pure speculation that we might some day tap into this mysterious dark energy – whatever it is – as a fuel source for space travel. That is rather putting the cart before the horse, cosmologically speaking.

However, every time Turok started sounding like a cheerleader for various popular theories about the universe, he would follow up by recognizing that many of these ideas are undermined because physicists have to resort to adding a bunch of adjustable variables, and then twisting, tweaking and kneading experimental evidence to make it fit the theory. Attempts to tie together everything we know about the universe Turok writes, are even worse. "Instead of making physics simpler and more beautiful, grand unified theories have, so far, turned out to make it more complex and arbitrary."

And he's not kidding. String theory, for instance, now offers 10 to the power of 150 possible versions of the universe, while the inflationary model (which has the universe expanding incredibly fast right after the Big Bang) boasts vastly more than 10 to the power of 120 variations. Any theory that predicts just about anything means just about nothing. That is another dark cloud.

However, Turok is optimistic that physicists will resolve all these problems because of the human capacity to invent, create and understand the "universe within" in the title.

The Universe Within has no particular story arc, and there is some repetition. But that is likely an artifact of the chapters being separate lectures to be presented to different audiences. Its weakest parts are Turok's commentaries on societal and environmental issues, which come off sounding platitudinous. That said, this is an excellent book for anyone who wants a general, accesible overview of our best understanding of the universe, clouds and all.

Sheilla Jones is author of The Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition and Science. She is working on a book on the trouble with physics.

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