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The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos

by Neil Turok

Neil Turok, a South African–born theoretical physicist, is the executive director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and one of the winners of the 2008 TED Prize, which he received in part for helping to found the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences. Part history lesson, part primer on particle physics, part call to action, The Universe Within collects Turok’s 2012 CBC Massey Lectures on the relationship between physics and social change.

Turok does an excellent job making accessible some of the most difficult concepts in physics, writing about science with a clarity that rivals Brian Greene and James Gleick. Some of his analogies are admittedly cumbersome – the coins and pyramid-shaped boxes he uses to explain quantum entanglement, for example – but as Turok himself points out, quantum physics resists intuitive explanations.

The author views the history of physics through the prism of individuals sharing ideas, building on their predecessors’ work, and sometimes competing against each other. Some, like Emmy Noether, Albert Einstein, and Neils Bohr, also took advantage of opportunities previously unavailable to people of their race, religion, or gender. Turok sees a similar move toward diversity, and the concurrent expansion of imagination, as instrumental in reinvigorating a field he thinks has become sadly moribund. 

Turok’s optimism comes through on every page. He understands the seriousness of our problems – climate change, economic crises, struggles for equality and access – but also recognizes the potential to meet these challenges, especially in the developing world, where better access to education could open paths to those essential new perspectives, giving us a latter-day Bohr, Noether, or Einstein. His tendency to draw a line between advancements in physics and their adoption by society at times seems too simplistic, but Turok’s examples – how developments in particle physics were necessary for transistors and the computer, for example – are persuasive. By turns entertaining and instructive, The Universe Within above all offers hope.