Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book review: “The Universe Within” by Neil Turok

The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos (CBC Massey Lecture)
By Neil Turok
House of Anansi Press (October 2, 2012)

Neil Turok is director of Perimeter Institute and founder of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. His research is mostly in theoretical cosmology, and he has written a pile of interesting papers with other well-known physicists. Some weeks ago, I found a free copy of Turok’s new book “The Universe Within” in my mail together with a blurb praising it as “the most anticipated nonfiction book of the season” and a “personal, visionary, and fascinating work.” From the back cover, I expected the book to be about the relevance of basic research, physics specifically, and the advances blue sky research has brought to our societies.

You know me for arguing that we need knowledge for the sake of knowledge and it’s a mistake to justify all research by practical applications. To advance my own arguments, I thought I should read Turok’s book.

The book is to accompany the 2012 Massey Lectures that will be broadcast in November 2012.

Turok starts with the old Greeks, then writes about Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo, and lays out the development of the scientific method. He spends some time on Newton’s laws, electrodynamics, special relativity and general relativity. Since Turok’s own work is mostly in cosmology, it is not surprising that quite some space is dedicated to this. The standard model of particle physics appears here and there, and the recent discovery of the Higgs is mentioned. He goes to some length to explain path integrals with the action of the standard model coupled to general relativity, the one equation appearing in the book (without the measure), a courage that I think should be applauded. Turok makes clear he is not a fan of the multiverse. In the final chapter, he goes on to a general praise of basic research.

His explanations about physics are interwoven with his own experiences, growing up in South Africa, the challenges he faced, and the research he has done. This is all content well intentioned and sounds like a good agenda. Unfortunately, the realization of this agenda is poor.

The introductions into the basic physical concepts will be difficult to understand if one doesn’t know already what he is talking about. For example, he talks about inflation before he speaks about general relativity. He talks about the Planck length and the Hubble length without explaining the relevance. To make contact to Euclidean space, Turok wants to explain Minkowski-spacetime by using the “ict” trick that nobody uses anymore and will leave many readers confused. They will be left equally confused about the question how the wavefunction and the path integral is related to actually observable quantities. The reader should also better previously have heard about the multiverse, because that’s only mentioned in the passing to get across the author’s opinion.

The book has several photos and illustrations in color, including the “formula that summarizes all the known laws of physics”, but these are not referenced in the text. You better look at them in advance to know where they belong, or you have to guess while reading that there might be an image belonging to what you read.

The book is also repetitive in several places, where concepts that were introduced earlier, for example extra dimensions, reappear. “As I explained earlier” or similar phrases have been added in some instances, but the overall impression I got is that this book was written in pieces that were later put together sloppily. The picture presented is incoherent at best and superficial at worst. Rather than making a solid case for the relevance of basic research, Turok has focused on introducing the basics of modern physics with some historical background, and then talks mostly about cosmology. Examples of unpredictable payoff appear, in the form of electrodynamics, the transistor, and potentially quantum computing. But the cases are not well made in the sense that he doesn’t drive home the point that none of that research was aimed at producing the next better computer. And they’re not exactly very inspired choices either.

Turok’s argumentation is sometimes just weird or not well thought through. For example, to explain the merits of quantum computers, he writes:
“Quantum computers may also transform our capacities to process data in parallel, and this could enable systems with great social benefit. One proposal now being considered is to install highly sensitive biochemical quantum detectors in every home. In this way, the detailed medical condition of every one of us could be continuously monitored. The data would be transmitted to banks of computers which would process it and screen for signs of any risk.”
He does not add as much as one word on the question if this was desirable. This is pretty bad imo, because it suggests the image of a scientist who doesn’t care about ethical implications. (I mean: the question whether you want information about potentially uncurable diseases is already a topic of discussion today.) Another merit of quantum computers is apparently:
“With a quantum library, one might… be able to search for all possible interesting passages of text without anyone having had to compose them.”
Clearly what mankind needs. And here’s what, according to Turok, is the purpose of writing:
“Writing is a means of extracting ourselves from the world of our experience to focus, form, and communicate our ideas.”
One might maybe say so about scientific writing, at least in its ideal form. But the scientist in the writer seems to have taken over here. Another sentence that strikes me as odd is “I have been fascinated by the problem of how to enable young people to enter science, especially in the developing world.” I’m not sure “fascinating problem” is a particularly emphatic choice of words.

Other odd statements: “M-theory is the most mathematical theory in all of physics, and I won’t even try to describe it here.” He does anyway, but I’m left wondering what “most mathematical” is supposed to mean. Is it just an euphemism for “least practical relevance”? Another fluff sentence is “We are analog beings living in a digital world, facing a quantum future.” Turok also adds a sentence according to which one day maybe we’ll be able to harness dark energy. I can just see his inbox being flooded with proposals on exactly how to do that.

The last chapter of the book starts out quite promising, as it attempts to take on the question of what is the merit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Then I got distracted by a five pages long elaboration on “Frankenstein”. (He somehow places the origin of this novel in Italy, and forgets to mention that the Castle of Frankenstein is located in Germany, I pass by every time I visit my parents.) Then Turok seems to recall that the book is to appear with a Canadian publisher and suddenly adds a paragraph to praise the country:
“[T]oday’s Canada… compared to the modern Rome to its south, feels like a haven of civilization. Canada has a great many advantages: strong public education and health care systems; a peaceful, tolerant, and diverse society; a stable economy, and phenomenal natural resources. It is internationally renowned as a friendly and peaceful nation, and widely appreciated for its collaborative spirit and for the modest, practical character of its people.”
It’s not that I disagree. But it makes me wonder what audience he is writing for. The member of parliament who might have to sign in the right place so cash keeps flowing? But what bugs me most about “The Universe Within” is that Turok expresses his concerns about the current use of information technology, and then has nothing to add in terms of evidence that this really is a problem or any idea what can or should be done about it:
“Our society has reached a critical moment. Our capacity to access information has grown to the point where we are in danger of overwhelming our capacity to process it. The exponential growth in the power of or computers and networks, while opening vast opportunities, is outpacing our human abilities and altering our forms of communication in ways that alienate us from each other.”
Where is the evidence?
“We are being deluged with information through electric signals and radio waves, reduced to a digital, super-literal form that can be redistributed at almost no cost. The technology makes no distinction between value and junk.”
This isn’t a problem of technology, this is a problem of economy.
“The abundance and availability of free digital information is dazzling and distracting. It removes us from our own nature as complex, unpredictable, passionate people.”
According to Turok, the solution to this problem has something to do with the “ultraviolet-catastrophe”, I couldn’t quite follow the details. From a scientist, I would have expected a more insightful discussion. Not too long ago, Perimeter Institute had a really bright faculty member by name Michael Nielsen, who thought about the challenges and opportunities of information technology for science and what can be done about it. Turok does not only not explain what evidence it is that has him worried, he also doesn’t comment on any recent developments or suggestions. Maybe he should have spent some time talking to Nielsen.

So in summary, what can I say? This book strikes me as well intentioned, but sloppy and hastily written. If you are looking for a good introduction to the basic concepts of modern physics and cosmology, better read Sean Carroll’s book. If you are looking for a discussion of the challenges science and our societies are facing by rapid information exchange, better read Jaron Lanier’s book, or even Maggie Jackson’s book. If you want to know what the future of science might look like and what steps we should take to advance knowledge discovery, read Michael Nielsen’s book. And if you want to know how our societies economically benefit from basic research, read Mark Henderson’s book because he lists facts and numbers, even if they’re very UK-centric.

Neil Turok’s book might be interesting for you if you want to know something about Neil Turok. At least I found it interesting to learn something about his background, but it’s only a page here or there. I would give this book two out of five stars. That’s because I think he should be thanked for making the effort and taking the time. I hope though next time he gets a better editor.


  1. Well indented?! That's either the best "damning by faint praise" I've heard in years, or a typo for "well intentioned".

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  4. Hi Bee,

    A fairly scathing review I would say, which has me to wonder perhaps if it’s in part more of a matter of one not being a member of the author’s target audience. That is from a public lecture I attended of Neil’s I gathered the impression of him as being a better pitch man for scientific research than he was as an actual disseminator of it. I would admit like you my sentiments rest with thinking there’s a need for more disseminators and yet also recognize there’s a much greater body of people who have no wish to have science to be understood, yet rather the best one can hope for is them coming away having it being found important and necessary. That is my take on Neil’s general mission, if we can call it one, is not so much working towards having a scientific centric world become realized, yet simply a wish to have more in the world given the opportunity to contribute to what it has been able to thus far provide us with. So as much as I’d hate to admit it Neil’s goal is probably more realistic and thus has me wondering if it’s the scope of his aspiration more than the content which leaves you disappointed.



  5. Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein while in Geneva and finished in England. She moved to Italy shortly after it was published, in 1818. So the confusion is understandable.

    What would be a good cosmology book for somebody who's not a physicist, but has read QM and GR at the undergraduate level, and wants more than a popular-level intro? Thanks.

  6. As you must know Turok and Steinhardt
    had something they shared? This is back in 2004.


  7. Hi Plato,

    Yes, they also wrote a book together (which I didn't read). Best,


  8. See Also:The Steinhardt–Turok model

    Maybe not a multiverse but a cyclical universe?

  9. Turok was in good company with Veneziano and Penrose.:)

  10. Hi Phil,

    I have no problem with Turok's mission, to the extend that I can extract it from his book and having met him a few times, I think my opinion on the relevance of basic research largely overlaps with his.

    The problem with this so-called book is that it's a) dramatically overpraised by the editor b) not really a book (it's a writeup of some radio lectures that pretends to be a book) and c) he's making his case so badly, that I'm not sure it's actually of benefit to advance his mission.

    As I said, just having finished reading Mark Henderson's book, let me tell you how he leads the argument: He's got a long list of outcomes of basic research that were unplanned that literally changed the world. He's got data that correlate investment in basic research with economic prosperity. And he walks the reader through this till the only thing you can say is: Okay, got it, we need basic research even if researchers can't come up with a three year plan. Unfortunately, as I said, most of Henderson's data is from the UK. And what is missing in Henderson's book, besides a more global view, is that knowledge by itself has a value for people, if it is properly communicated. And Turok kind of says that, here and there, but really the message doesn't come across very clearly. Now I'll not blame him for not writing the book that I would have liked to read, but I'm left wondering then really what's the point of this book. Best,


  11. "Extent. When will I learn this?"

    Stuff with "ent" are nouns; stuff with "end" are verbs (that is, this is usually the case if these are the two forms in question---obviously, "indent" is a verb, but the noun is indentation.

  12. There seem to be quite a few new popular-science books which suffer from bad editing and the other problems you mention.

  13. "old Greeks"

    This should be "ancient Greeks"; otherwise, you mean present-day Greeks who are old.

  14. While Mary Shelley certainly passed by the castle during her travels, whether or not it was the origin of the name Frankenstein in her novel is, as far as I know, not clear. Maybe she just liked the sound of the name, which is not a common name in Germany but not extremely rare. (When I studied physics in Hamburg, a fellow student was named Frankenstein.)

  15. euphemism for Turok who had no control over what he would like to have said and that events were greater then himself as to the meanings of what he wanted to say....Frankenstein as also a Euphemism about the trend toward automatons being developed in a future as seen by imbuing a quality of life into manufactured people...who knows....precursors to the future about robotic and digital transference with regard to further developing people? :)

  16. Hi David B,

    I guess Sean Carroll's book or lecture notes would serve you well. I also really like this book, but I doesn't seem to come in an English version. Best,


  17. Thanks. I've read Spacetime & Geometry. Where's material about inflation, or what was before that?

  18. Hi David,

    Mukhanov deals with inflation, but I haven't actually read the book so can't tell how useful it is. Pre-inflationary scenarios, I don't think these have made it into textbooks yet. Penrose's recent book talks about his version thereof, but nothing else comes to my mind, sorry. Best,



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