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Inspiring look at science as human activity

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The Universe Within

From Quantum to Cosmos

By Neil Turok

Anansi, 312 pages, $20

Cries of "Hooray for science!" free of irony, are seldom heard these days. Yet, it is through science that we learn what is really true, and science that gave us our modern technologies, and offers the best hope for the future.

Neil Turok is a respected theoretical physicist, originally from South Africa, and now the director of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ont. He is concerned with the origin of the universe, but also with the widening gap between scientists and society at large.

The Universe Within, this year's CBC Massey Lectures, is divided into five chapters that are being read aloud by the author on a cross-country tour of Canadian universities (no stop in Winnipeg) and then broadcast on CBC Radio's Ideas program on Nov. 12-16.

As a collection of lectures designed for delivery from a podium, the book is governed by certain constraints. It is short enough to read aloud in five hours, and there are no pictures or graphs.

With only a handful of digressions, the first four chapters tell the story of classical and modern physics from the Greeks to Newton, Maxwell, Einstein and on to the Large Hadron Collider.

Turok is careful to show that the development of his scientific field is a human story. Galileo Galilei, Michael Faraday, Paul Dirac and the other figures on whom the spotlight falls were all real people.

In the first lecture, we are reminded that "science is, above all, a human activity." This observation makes the gap between science and society that exists today more lamentable, but it also implies that gap is unnatural and within our power to close.

The final chapter deals with the relationship between scientists and society and their shared role in shaping the future.

Scientists, and especially theoretical physicists, are sometimes perceived to offer little practical value in a world with more imminent problems than the size and shape of the 10th dimension.

Turok shows that scientific research into the fundamental nature of reality is far from useless, having given us everything from "construction engineering to lasers ... to space travel."

Today, new experiments based on principles from quantum mechanics are showing promise of a new type of "quantum" computer that would have astounding potential.

Just as digital information -- everything reduced to streams of 1's and 0's -- is fundamentally inferior to the analog world, quantum information would be superior.

A quantum computer with only 300 "qubits" would be able to occupy more states than there are atoms in the universe, simultaneously. The potential of this technology is difficult to predict but exciting to contemplate.

A hopeful tone is pervasive throughout the lectures, and so is the recognition of science as a global pursuit. Briefly switching hats, Turok shares about his efforts promoting higher education in his home continent, through the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

A Canadian touch comes early on, when instead of the usual billiard balls to explain Newton's law of motion, he has us visualize hockey pucks sliding on frictionless ice, just cleaned by the "world's greatest Zamboni."

The last lecture includes some far more vigorous flag waving, pointing out that great enlightenment movements have often begun in modest countries, and that Canada, with strong public education and a peaceful, tolerant, diverse society, is well poised to lead the next flowering of civilization.

The Universe Within is concise, accessible and inspiring. It does suffer from its format, especially in one painful section describing a long, all-encompassing equation, full of integrals and Greek letters, without being able to show the blasted thing.

Paul Klassen is a Winnipeg engineer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 J7

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