World-renowned physicist Neil Turok believes our so-called digital age marks a low point in the history of human knowledge and only a deeper understanding of the universe's most minute particles can put us back on the track toward scientific progress.

In this year's CBC Massey Lectures starting Wednesday, Turok will explore major scientific discoveries covering a span of hundreds of years, from Pythagoras' mathematical theorems to the Higg-Boson particle, and what they mean for the future of human understanding.

"We are analog beings living in a digital world facing a quantum future," he writes in his book The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos, upon which his upcoming series of lectures is based.

In an interview with Paul Kennedy, host of the CBC radio program Ideas, Turok said the digital revolution is "bringing us all down to the lowest possible form of information."

How to experience the 2012 Massey Lectures

"It's just zeroes and ones," he said in front of an audience last week at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., where he is the director.

"I think there is a widespread feeling that the deluge of digital information which is coming at us all — and of course creating many wonderful things, opportunities to communicate and to educate and so on — also feels alien to us as natural living creatures," Turok said. 

"My starting point in the book is really the unhappiness which is prevalent in our society. [It's] maybe summed up by the comedian Louis C.K. when he said, 'Everything is amazing right now, but nobody's happy.' "

Turok says that society is on the brink of another major shift, moving toward the bizarre world of quantum physics, which aims to understand the universe from a microscopic point of view.

"There are three levels of information: digital, analogue and quantum," he said. "Quantum is really a realm of above us. It will extend us, it will change us." 

The humanity of science

The South African-born Turok has spent his career studying topics such as theoretical physics and cosmology. He worked with Stephen Hawking to develop the Hawking-Turok instanton solutions, which describe the birth of inflationary universes.

For Turok, science is an important part of humanity, a way of understanding profound truths about the universe. 

'Personally I feel that this view of ourselves as part of the universe is something we need to get back to.'—Neil Turok

"I try to connect things like love and hope with physics," he said.

"We need to connect our hearts with our minds and realize that understanding the universe is part of who we are, almost a defining characteristic of human beings."

Turok laments what he calls a "fragmentation of knowledge," where higher education has been broken up into discrete disciplines. He says that in modern society, there has been a divergence of science from the rest of humanity.

He looks back at Ancient Greece, when the study of art, science and philosophy where considered one and the same.

"[Pythagoras] saw music and he realized that music is mathematical," Turok said.

Massey live tour

  • Oct. 10: Magic That Works, St. John's.
  • Oct. 12: Our Imaginary Reality, Montreal
  • Oct. 16: What Banged?, Vancouver
  • Oct. 18: The World in an Equation, Calgary
  • Oct. 24: The Opporunity of All Time, Toronto

"Personally I feel that this view of ourselves as part of the universe is something we need to get back to."

Turok will be sharing his ideas with Canadians, from St. John's to Vancouver, when he embarks on a cross-country tour.

His series of five live talks range in topic from what quantum physics means for our understanding of reality to the quest for a unified theory.

Turok follows in the footsteps of other distinguished Massey lecturers such as Doris Lessing and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The full Massey Lectures will air on CBC Radio's Ideas from Nov. 12 to 16.