Newton’s personal library of a few hundred books, quite enough to found physics. “The Universe Within” by Neil Turok.

The Universe Within by Neil Turok is the 2012 Massey Lectures. I have read several histories of physics and perhaps did not need to read another one, but Turok speaks with a profound wisdom. A theoretical physicist, he has worked with Stephen Hawking, Paul Steinhardt and other brilliant minds to develop our understanding of the early universe. He is currently Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo Canada. He has a deep political consciousness and is dedicated to connecting abstract ideas with everyday people and young minds.

Turok makes many thoughtful reflections. I highlight three of them here. First, the problem of information overload in the modern digital world is not a new one but Turok stopped me with this observation:

In the Wren Library in Trinity College, Cambridge, Isaac Newton’s personal library consists of a few hundred books occupying a single bookcase. This was quite enough to allow him to found modern physics and mathematical science. A short walk away, in the main University Library, Charles Darwin’s personal library is also preserved. His entire collection of books occupies a ten-metre stretch of shelving. Again, for one of the most profound and original thinkers in the history of science, it is a minuscule collection.

Maybe the internet with its millions of books of data is required for the rest of our average brains. More likely, digital technology and the internet simply allow too much text to exist. A little curation goes a long way to intelligence.

Second, I was glad to find a heavyweight physicist who shares my skepticism of the multiverse theory. Put simply, the multiverse concept proposes a universe for each possible outcome in space-time. Cast a six-side die and each outcome occurs in a different universe. The multiverse is proposed to resolve certain logical problems arising from quantum mechanics. It was delightfully rendered in the fictional work The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter. I am skeptical about it as a serious idea. As Turok says:

It is hard to imagine a less elegant or convincing explanation of our own beautiful world than to invent a near-infinite number of unobservable worlds and to say that, for some reason we cannot understand or quantify, ours was “chosen” to exist from among them.

Finally, I am grateful to Turok for giving the new atheists a kick in the ass. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have caused me to re-evaluate my vague agnosticm, even to acknowledge that I am an atheist, at least on weekdays. I maintain objections to their smugness. In The God Delusion, Dawkins opens by describing his profound wonder at the vastness of the universe. The same feeling has been shared in religious terms by Sagan, Einstein, Hawking and other scientists. When these scientists talk about God they are doing so in a poetic sense. The God Delusion, says Dawkins, is not an attack on their God. No, his attack is not on the poetic thinkers but on the literalists, those who think in fairy tales rather than in good solid physics. You can make a bold claim — God is a delusion — only if you exclude all good thinking on the subject and only focus on a straw man.

I was also disappointed by Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing. The book promises to take on the deep philosophical question, why is there something rather than nothing? I learned fresh ideas about the distribution of energy in the universe; fascinating, but not informative about the primary question. I get his argument, the sum of energy in the universe has been accounted for so there is no need to invoke a creator. Fine, don’t invoke a creator. But why is there something rather than nothing? As Turok says, “The rhetoric is impressive but the arguments are shallow.” If you are looking for a modest and reflective take on the subject, I recommend Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt. Turok makes another recommendation which I have added to my reading list:

In comparing Krauss’s and Dawkins’s arguments with the care and respectfulness of those presented by Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, all the way back in the eighteenth century, one can’t help feeling the debate has gone backwards. Hume presents his skepticism through a dialogue which allows opposing views to be forcefully expressed, but which humbly reaches no definitive conclusion. After all, that is his main point: we do not know whether God exists.

Of late I have wondered if the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not the peak of human intellect. Neil Turok is an equal for our own day.