Rob Hardy on books


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A Humane View of Science and the Cosmos



Rob Hardy


There are good guides to physics and cosmology already which attempt to clarify for the layman the mysterious and counterintuitive realms into which science is pushing. They all succeed imperfectly, or at least that has been my experience; quantum electrodynamics, for instance, is just too weird for me to understand. (Mind you, I am still stumbling over understanding relativity.) So when I read such books, it is with the understanding that my understanding is going to be faulty, that maybe I will pick up a little bit of clarity, and maybe I can enjoy the author's own enthusiasm. That's what I enjoyed best about The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos (House of Anansi Press) by Neil Turok. Turok has every egghead credential for writing authoritatively on such matters. He has partnered, for instance, with Stephen Hawking in work that illuminates the birth of the inflationary universe. He reviews in this book physics up to Newton, through Einstein, and beyond, and his short summary of the vast topics is quite good (although I assure you that quanta and such are still well outside my comfortable understanding). What is good about the book is not only the summary of science, but the deeply personal insights and the author's eagerness to have the general reader enjoy the scientific view. He describes his subject as "a story of fun, yearning, determination, and, most of all, humility and awe before nature."  




As an instance of the personal nature of this narrative, the first sentence is, "When I was three years old, my father was jailed for resisting the apartheid regime in South Africa." Turok's mother was jailed, too, and he went to stay with his Christian Scientist grandmother. He was introduced to the Bible: "I loved the idea of a book that held the answer to everything." Even though he could not read, he begged for a little Bible he could carry around with him. "What I most wanted even at that early age, was to capture and hold the truth, with the certainty and love that it brings." He didn't eventually find that the Bible had all the answers, and of course any biblical literalist will tell you how scientists like Turok have gone off the deep end with their views that, say, the universe is older than a few thousand years. But the urge toward certainty never left him; his history of scientific and mathematical thought necessarily shows that certainty is always elusive, and there are huge gaps in our knowledge. Nonetheless, when he writes about Galileo and the uniting of mathematical theory and physical experience, he writes, "But when we look at how rapidly and how far physics has come since Galileo, who can say what its future limits are?" 




The importance of mathematical insight is a constant theme here, well shown in the joint work of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. Faraday was a brilliant experimenter, and Maxwell a brilliant mathematical theorist. Faraday had found relationships between electric and magnetic fields, and Maxwell had made his famous equations that incorporated the laws of magnetism and electricity. Maxwell took the best experimental data of the time, and using his equations, he came up with a theoretical speed of light, a mathematical result that turned out to be in almost exact accord with the experimental measurement of the speed. "This coincidence," he wrote Maxwell with understatement, "is not merely numerical." 




In other sections, too, Turok stresses the personal nature of the scientific quest. Who knew the importance of betting among scientists? He writes, though, "Throughout his career, Stephen Hawking has enjoyed making bets. It's a great way of focusing attention on a problem and encouraging them to think about it." Hawking and Turok have a bet pending, on whether the Planck satellite, in data that may be due next year, will see gravitational waves, which may distinguish the cyclic model of the universe (alternating Big Bang and Big Crunch) with the inflationary one (just a Big Bang and spreading ever since). He gives us introductions to many of the personalities who have added scientific insight. Newton, for instance, wrote far more about religion and alchemy than he did physics or math, but as Turok writes, "Newton's mathematical researches were his magic that worked." Paul Dirac was shy and notoriously quiet, but presented a form of quantum theory that is still taught today. He confined himself to using as few words as he could; Niels Bohr said with admiration, "Dirac did not have a trivial bone in his body." I was here introduced to Emmy Noether, who saw that laws of conservation were mathematical consequences of symmetries of space, time, and other physical quantities. She was born in Germany, and endured discrimination as a Jew and as a woman. She was allowed to audit classes, get a doctorate, and eventually teach at university, although without pay, and professors protested even this. 




The Universe Within is a compilation of Turok's Massey Lectures, the annual effort by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to have experts present a series of lectures on their areas of research. It enables Turok to discuss some important themes of science and society. He likes very much the idea of scientists presenting to the public, reminding us of the service to science performed in an exemplary way by Faraday's lectures. At a time when in America there is a backlash against science, fed largely by churches that insist on a Bible literally true, Turok writes, "The disconnection between science and society is harmful, especially when you consider that science is, in general, open-minded, tolerant, and democratic. In its opposition to dogma and its willingness to live with uncertainty, science is in many ways a model for society." This is part of his belief about how science ought to serve society's needs. "Society needs to better understand science and to see its value beyond just providing the next gadget or technical solution." He has lived these beliefs. He was a founder of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences because there were talented students in math and science who had no encouragement and nowhere to develop their talents. He was warned that the school would be doing nothing but remedial teaching, but this is not the case, and graduates have gone into many fields. Turok writes, "Their success sends a powerful message of hope which undermines prejudice and inspires countless others." The best part of his book is Turok's optimistic but realistic hopes for how, beyond just the important goal of satisfying curiosity, science has potential for bringing us "the era of the first Global Enlightenment." 






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