“ Understanding where the universe is within us may be closer than I initially expected.”

A mark of a truly great mind is the ability to comprehend one of the most complicated subjects grappled by humankind, and then to be able to explain it in a way that it is understandable to those outside the field of expertise. That’s what theoretical physicist Neil Turk has set out to do with his CBC Massey Lecture, “The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos,” during the fall of 2012. 

The CBC Massey Lecture is a yearly event where an influential and brilliant person is invited to give a series of five public lectures on a topic of social importance to Canadians. The series has been around since the 1960s and is named for Vincent Massey, a former Governor General of Canada. The five lectures are given in different cities across Canada and are recorded for the CBC Radio One program, Ideas. The lecture whirlwind-tours in Oct., and Ideas airs over the course of five nights one week in the middle of Nov. Every year there is an accompanying book that compiles the lectures into their whole form, which is published by House of Anansi Press before the tour starts. The third lecture in Turok’s series was “What Banged” and it was held at the Chan Centre at UBC and I was fortunate enough to attend. 

Turok is the director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI), a non-profit research facility in Waterloo, Ont. established in 1999 by Research In Motion founder Mike Lazaridis. In addition to its scientific research, a goal of the Institute is to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public, bringing the general community into contact with science. They offer public lectures on their scientific research, visit high schools, and provide online resources. 

The world vaguely took notice of physics research back in July when two teams of physicists working for CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland (with more scientists around the world working on the data) announced that they had discovered a long-sought particle: the Higgs boson. Knowing from the press release that something major had been achieved, I stayed up to watch the presentations live from Switzerland over the Internet—they started at 1 a.m. PST. What followed was a great deal of the expected technical detailing and presentations of data. Although I could tell that something big was happening and I knew roughly what key numbers to listen for to know whether they had found the Higgs boson, at around 2:30 a.m. I fell asleep. 

The significance of the Higgs boson has subsequently been explained in numerous publications intended for a general audience, but it didn’t make the big waves that I expected it to. The discovery boils down to a key concept: the Higgs boson is an indicator of the field that allows all particles to have mass. Without the Higgs, we wouldn’t stick together—matter, and life, as we know it, would be impossible. There’s the Coles Notes version, and it’s fascinating enough, but it’s difficult to relate, or understand the important detail without a background of scientific and mathematical experience. 

In his lecture and book, Neil Turok elaborates on concepts further, although not lingering on the Higgs boson a great deal—the confirmation is just too recent. Although many physicists and authors have tried to break the communication barrier between the arts and the sciences— and some have done it very well—in The Universe Within, Turok achieves a level of clarity matched by few. In an interview with Quill & Quire, Turok says “I did not want it to be a popular explanation of basic physics. I wanted it to be more than that, to be something which addresses what physics means and why it is so remarkable that we are able to understand the universe from the incredibly tiny scale of a billionth the size of an atom right up to a trillion times bigger than the solar system.” 

One of the aims of the PI is to reach out to the arts and humanities and they do host a series of musical performances. After the lecture at UBC, I asked Turok how those working in the arts and humanities can connect with those working in the sciences. Turok says to remember that our goals are similar. We are all exploring humanity and our origins, seeking to understand the universe and where we are within it. And, as the title of the lecture series evocatively suggests, where it is within us. The problem is that our education system has been fractured—the disciplines of the humanities and sciences have been separated and few receive an education that covers both. No wonder we don’t understand each other. 

Understanding where the universe is within us may be closer than I initially expected. The final portion of Turok’s book discusses how we are on the cusp of creating a quantum computer—which will change how we understand ourselves and the world. In one (for me, anyway) sobering statement, he mentions that the creation of a quantum computer would allow for every possible combination of words to exist—the writer would become obsolete, in fact, rather useless if every idea and combination of ideas can be expressed through a computer. 

Uncertainty is not a bad thing, and Turok emphasizes that despite the troubles that the world is facing today, he is optimistic for the future, saying that when we solve some of the major problems we are currently facing, such as the oil crisis, what waits on the other side of those solutions is a marvellous new way of existence and those of us who are young enough may experience the advent of quantum computing and greater insight into the Universe Within in our lifetime. 

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