Neil Turok tackles the universe within


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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (3/11/12)

Fifty times over the past 61 years, CBC's Ideas has aired the Massey Lectures, a week-long series given by a prominent intellectual on a subject that interests them. Everything from philosophy to economics and literature to politics has been covered by people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jane Jacobs, Noam Chomsky, Michael Ignatieff and Margaret Atwood. This year, physicist Neil Turok joins that group of luminaries as the 51st Massey Lecturer. In his lectures, titled The Universe Within, he explores the wonders of the universe, and how we've uncovered its secrets through history.

Turok is one of the world's leading cosmologists and theoretical physicists. Currently the director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., he's previously taught at Princeton and the University of Cambridge. Turok, who was born in South Africa to anti-apartheid activists and grew up in East Africa, didn't start out wanting to understand the mysteries of the universe. He originally wanted to be a biologist.


"I loved nature," he admitted to Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald in a recent interview. "I used to collect beetles and was actually on the committees of the British Anthropological and Naturalist societies when I was 13." However, as he began to explore his chosen science further, he began to realize that "biology is not much more than a collection of facts and circumstances," and that the explanation of how and why our world exists lies with physics. "In physics, one is able to learn and discover very deep secrets about nature which are able to make these extraordinary predictions."

One of those predictions is how the universe is going to end. Turok's recent work focuses on the idea that the universe is cyclical -- that is, the Big Bang that created this universe has actually happened many times before and will happen many more times in the future. "With the original Big Bang theory, we came out of nowhere," Turok said, adding that in order for this model of the universe to work, "one has to invent a form of energy called inflationary energy to drive the explosive growth of the universe from very, very tiny into the huge thing we see today." But Turok argues that the universe, in particular the "dark energy" that takes up the seeming vastness of space, is "actually unstable and when it decays it will create the next Big Bang." This cycle is repeated indefinitely, thus creating and destroying universe after universe.

Turok believes that a greater understanding of science is needed by the general population. It's partly why he agreed to be this year's Massey Lecturer and it's one of the major themes in The Universe Within. "The modern world is an outcome of science," he said. "People outside science just sort of assume that the next iPhone or other gadget is just going to miraculously appear and they don't question where it came from." Turok hopes his work and these lectures will play a small part in changing that. "Science needs to be seen as a part of humankind's essence. It is who we are. We are able to learn about the universe and use that learning to improve our society."

The 2012 Massey Lectures air on IDEAS November 12-16 at 9 p.m. (9:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Radio One.

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