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neil turok

Neil Turok will deliver a talk called "We Are Innovators" at venues across Canada as part of Innovation150, a collaboration between five leading science outreach organizations. For more information, visit

As a cosmologist, I'm often asked how research into the universe – from black holes to the Big Bang – is relevant to our everyday lives here on Earth.

My answer: completely.

We look around us and up at the stars and we wonder how it all works. Amazingly, we can find answers, and those answers are beautiful.

Learning from the universe – both nearby and far away – has laid the foundation for every technology that has shaped our world. Our understanding of the laws of motion, electricity and light made airplanes, computers and wireless communication possible. Solving today's great mysteries, like what banged at the Big Bang, what the universe is made of and how quantum theory connects it all, will, I believe, open doors to unimaginable new technologies.

Our ability to comprehend the workings of nature, and to apply that knowledge with ingenuity to improve our world, makes us who we are. We contemplate and imagine, experiment and observe. When we understand, we design and we make. In doing so, we continually reshape the world.

We are innovators.

Innovation is a bit of a buzzword these days. Many companies and organizations claim it as their raison d'être. But I believe we all need to lay claim to it, to own it, because innovation is one of humankind's defining traits. It will, almost certainly, be the key to our future. And I believe Canada can play a vital leadership role.

This year, I will be travelling across Canada to deliver an interactive talk called "We Are Innovators," as part of Innovation150, a nationwide celebration of Canada's sesquicentennial. Our goal is to celebrate Canadian ingenuity and Canada's potential to foster innovation. We hope to encourage all Canadians, especially youth, to effect positive change both at home and abroad.

I will discuss the challenges our planet now faces – from environmental degradation and growing inequality to growing prejudice and misinformation – and how we must rise to them. In every challenge lies an opportunity; in thinking and behaving as innovators lies our best hope for the future.

Innovation is, in a sense, as old as life itself; it is hard-wired into our DNA. Biological evolution is nothing more than a series of trial-and-error innovations, each conferring a survival advantage.

But what makes things different today is that, through innovation, we have gained the power to control our evolution and that of our planet. This places an enormous collective responsibility upon us.

Many innovations are double-edged swords; cars and planes drove our dependence on fossil fuels, turning our precious blue sphere into a warming greenhouse. Likewise, our mastery of electromagnetism and electronics enabled smartphones, which connected us in new ways but has also glued us to our screens at the expense of richer, more human interactions. Technology is merely a tool. It is up to us to use it wisely if we are to build a brighter future.

What does it take to be an innovator? As a handy mnemonic, I use four Cs: curiosity, courage, creativity and collaboration. Everyone sees these traits differently; as a physicist, I naturally focus on the pioneers of my field.

The playful curiosity of a young Michael Faraday, an apprentice tinkering in his mentor's lab, led to the first electric motors and generators – and, eventually, to the discovery of electromagnetism, which allowed radio and the mobile-communication revolution.

The courage of Marie Curie, a young Polish woman who overcame extreme prejudice to pursue Nobel-winning research in both physics and chemistry, helped launch the quantum revolution that shaped 20th-century science and medical diagnosis.

More recently, the creativity and collaboration of Art McDonald and his SNOLAB team enabled them to transform a nickel mine two kilometres underneath Sudbury into an ultra-clean lab, where they detected neutrinos and gained deep insights into physics at super-high energies, earning the 2015 Nobel Prize.

What these innovators share in common are traits we are all born with – curiosity, courage, creativity and a collaborative spirit – combined with their intense focus on discovering the truth.

But discovery is only part of the equation. Equally important is using innovations wisely, for the betterment of our species. As the ancients said, there can be no truth without justice, and no justice without truth. Social innovators who overcome divisions and create opportunities for all are every bit as important as scientists, technologists and business entrepreneurs.

I was born in South Africa. Some of my earliest memories are of my parents being jailed alongside Nelson Mandela for their activism against the discriminatory apartheid regime. They had the courage to challenge authority, the curiosity to imagine a better society, the creativity to forge alliances and the collaborative spirit to work together for change.

My parents and their allies taught me by example not to shy away from challenges, no matter how big. The same mindset has driven my work in theoretical physics, a field in which we confront problems that seem (and usually are) impossible to solve on a daily basis.

The success of activists in changing South Africa inspired me and my colleagues to create the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a pan-African network of centres providing advanced scientific training to young African minds. AIMS recognizes that Africa's youth are its future, and that providing them with the skills they need to make a difference is the best way to resolve the continent's many challenges.

Here in Canada, I also see a very special opportunity. I was drawn to this country by its open, diverse and respectful culture. Only in Canada, I believe, could Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics – the centre for which I serve as director, and which emphasizes both cutting-edge research and educational outreach, equally – have been created.

We live in a troubled world, full of crises.

Brexit, Donald Trump's election and the rise of nationalism elsewhere threaten our ability to work across boundaries towards common goals. In this context, Canada can be a beacon of enlightenment, where the best of our human values are upheld, where education and critical thinking are valued, and where innovation is promoted in its widest, most inclusive sense.

I believe the world's current crises provide Canada with a clear opportunity: to attract the best and brightest minds, and to become a global knowledge leader. This happened in 17th-century Holland, where the invention of the telescope and microscope fuelled the scientific renaissance; it happened in 18th-century Scotland, with the emergence of luminaries like Adam Smith, David Hume and Robert Burns.

Through the 21st century, I believe the world might look upon Canada as the place where our collective future is imagined.

This will not come without work, and there is much to be done. The whole of society needs to lend its energy to supporting innovation. This spans schools, communities, universities, companies, unions, government, everyone.

Canada came fourth (behind Singapore, China and Estonia) in the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report on performance in science, but much more is needed. The report states: "At a time when science literacy is increasingly linked to economic growth and is necessary for finding solutions to complex social and environmental problems, all citizens, not just future scientists and engineers, need to be willing and able to confront science-related dilemmas."

For Canada to become an innovative, knowledge-based society, an entire generation of Canadians must grow up appreciating the tools, freedoms and support they have at their disposal. Their access to education, research and entrepreneurship opportunities are growing; we must enhance these to give them the confidence they need to tackle big problems.

Canada's diversity – of cultures and of ideas – will be one of its greatest sources of strength, because it is very often at the intersection or collision of alternative viewpoints that real innovation takes place. It is vital that we reinforce Canada's reputation as a place where diversity is cherished and understood as a driver of progress – a place where talent is valued, wherever it arises, and where every person is empowered to contribute.

I love physics because it rewards curiosity, creativity, courage and collaboration with the most precious of all things: the capacity to shape our destiny.

And I'm optimistic that, with the opportunities we can make available to them, young Canadians can be the innovators the world needs.

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