Book of the Month Club : The Universe Within by Neil Turok

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Whenever I teach electromagnetism, Maxwell’s discovery is the highlight of the course. There is a moment of sheer magic when the students suddenly see how all the pieces fit together and light has seemingly popped out of nowhere. ‘If you are ever in doubt,’ I tell them, ‘remember this moment. Perseverance leads to enlightenment!’ And the truth is more beautiful than your wildest dreams.

The book version of the 2012 CBC Massey Lecture, Neil Turok takes the reader on a spellbinding journey through the history of quantum physics and what could lie ahead.

Prior to the advent of quantum physics, science was studied under the lens of what we now call “classical physics”, which is based on the work on matter and energy as developed by Sir Isaac Newton. But classical physics, the stuff you learnt in high school, doesn’t work when we try to study things that are very small, such as subatomic particles. Quantum physics, on the other hand, studies what goes on beyond the atom, and started with a simple question: how much light could a light bulb filament emit?

The Universe Within

Turok’s writing is a joy to read. From the quotable passages to the sprawling, energetic prose that captures the spirit of scientific discovery, it is very approachable for the general audience. In a sense, the story Turok tries to teach is remote and abstract, something we would likely never think of in daily life, but he takes a dense subject, simplifies it for an audience who may not have a background in physics, and turns it into the tangible. While retaining the salient details, he speaks in a casual manner while expanding difficult concepts for the audience and includes real-life examples to visualize as an aid.

The people he writes about are both grandiose and well known (Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, for instance), to people equally important in his and our personal lives, such as teachers. They weave in and out of the story seamlessly, and are always relevant to the story. Uniting all of them is the author himself, who tells a bit of his own story as he recounts the story of quantum mechanics. Yet the overarching question that this book tries to ask is about where we can go with quantum physics. As Turok speaks about what possibilities lie in the future of the domain, of potential “what ifs,” that make the excitement about the unknown made known palpable.

If it is one thing that makes the book worthwhile to read (apart from learning, of course), it is the openness that Turok demonstrates, whether it is talking about social issues during his childhood in apartheid-era South Africa or trying to explain how Einstein could help advance quantum physics while still remaining on the fence about it. This book is very much worth a read.