Magic That Works

Quotes from The Universe Within. llustration for The Scope by Jose Gonzalez. Click for full comic.

This year’s CBC Massey Lecture series will be given by scientist Neil Turok, the Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo. St. John’s will be the first leg of his cross-Canada lecture series entitled The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos, which looks at the amazing scientific discoveries of the past three centuries, from the relatively intuitive world of classical mechanics to the strange probabilistic world of the quantum.

This is the world you live in, and it’s a world Turok wants us all to want to know more about. And he’s excited about what’s to come.

Interview with Elling Lien.

The Universe Within From Quantum to Cosmos by Neil Turok (House of Anansi Press, 2012, 280 pages; $19.95)

I want to say I really, really enjoyed the book, and I’m excited to hear you speak here in St. John’s

Thank you.

It’s a beautiful book. Personal, elegant, easy to read, inspiring. All of that. It was really ambitious. You start to tell the story of the beginning of science, the beginning of humanity even, and then you go all the way up through to explain key discoveries of classical physics and onto the weirder quantum stuff. Huge! How did you approach writing it?

Uh… Petrified! [laugh]

In February this year, I finally realized the immensity of the task and so I called on my friends at CBC and Anansi Press and I said, “I’m really struggling with how on Earth I’m going to explain all of physics, all of history, all about the future, and make it interesting. They came and we did some interviews and they asked questions. It was very much guided by their sense of what would or wouldn’t be accessible or interesting. I have a tendency as a physicist to get technical and I had to keep that firmly under control.

My editor was extremely helpful and when I was suffering from writer’s block she would say, “let it out. Just write and say what you feel.” And so I found the process of writing the book became a lot about me expressing my core beliefs. This is not a scientific thing, right? It’s more a question of why you do it, why you think it’s important. What it means. What it will mean for humanity. And essentially, writing the book was like a crash course in the liberal arts for me. I’ve never taken a History course or a Philosophy course. I’m a physicist by training, so it was a great chance to look back through history and read a ton of books and try to find a thread: Where did this magical knowledge come from?

And so the lecture I’m giving in Newfoundland is called “Magic That Works.” For me it’s still a miracle. We can learn how nature works on a size the billionth the size of an atom or ten trillion times the size of the solar system. We can figure it out and understand what’s going on. It’s incredible. It gives you a sense of amazing privilege. Of amazing opportunity. Because we’ve done so little with this yet. What is going to come, with quantum computers and quantum electronics and technologies, is going to vastly exceed anything science has created so far.

And, you know, speculating about that: will it change us? How is life going to evolve in the future—because the change may be more through technology than biology. And I think that’s tremendously exciting. I think everyone should be interested in this, whether or not they can follow the technicalities. People should realize this is profoundly important for the future of the world.

I’m really excited to come to Newfoundland and to have the chance to travel across Canada for this, hopefully to impart a sense of optimism. People are so pessimistic today, in spite of the fact that we have these huge opportunities.

[laugh] I appreciated that you quoted the comedian Louis C.K. in your book. [“Everything’s is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.” p.204]

Yeah, I love that quote! Everything is amazing right now, and people are really unhappy. And part of my last lectures I did was to try to understand why people are so unhappy about the technology we have. We’re spending our lives digitizing our thoughts and living glued to a Blackberry or a computer, and it’s pretty unpleasant.

What I realize in thinking about this is that we—I summarized it in the phrase “we’re analog beings living in a digital world.” We like music, we like art, we like continuous natural, if you like, experiences, but the digital is quite harsh. There’s nothing more definite than a 0 or 1. It remembers everything perfectly and is completely unforgiving.

And then I contrast that with the quantum world, which is nature. We are analog beings, but nature is actually quantum. And that’s a whole other level of reality that we’re just beginning to appreciate. I think in the future we will be interacting with this quantum world though quantum computers and quantum technologies, and my hope, which I express in the book, is that it will elevate us to a new level of experience, of knowledge, of insight. And who knows what it will bring, but it’s certain it will completely change us as people.

As I thought about it, one of the things I realized is that people talk about quantum computers as if they are simply a quantitative increase on computers.

Right. That they’re just bigger computers. Faster.

Bigger or faster, more powerful, blah, blah, blah. That’s not the point. They are qualitatively different. There is no comparison. The quantum world works through a simultaneous awareness of all possibilities. It has this sense of knowing all the possibilities of a physical system. I think that’s tremendously exciting. When we start to interact with quantum information, it will raise the level of our thought, rather than lowering it, as digital technologies do. That’s my hope.

[laugh] The quantum world… It’s so… weird! I know you understand that. How the world works at that level seems so unintuitive.

Yes, it’s very hard to conceptualize. But the message I want to get across to people is that we know this is the way the world works. We know there is vastly more potential in the universe than we have used so far. And you look at how successful we’ve been at utilizing basic physics in everything that underlies modern society. When you then think of how much more there is to come, how can you not be optimistic about the future? It’s insanity to feel pessimistic, because, you know, we have energy problems and climate problems and financial problems, but there’s so much more to come, and there’s a whole universe out there. I’m very optimistic we will be exploring the universe, we will be discovering new ways to access energy, we will be rising to a completely new level of intellectual experience with quantum computers. What’s there not to look forward to? It’s incredible prospect.

It’s mind blowing.

When preparing for this I obviously read lots of popular science books to see how other people did it, and one of my heroes is [American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist] Carl Sagan, and to read his books in the early 70s, above all the optimism…

He was extremely optimistic…

Oh yes! It was so cool. And the thing is, you realize the number of people who got into science because of Carl Sagan—or because of Stephen Hawking today—was huge. And those people made a massive, massive difference to the world. The people who invented the smart phone and the internet, and that gave rise to all these other phenomena, including the Arab Spring. So this is a very important cycle of explaining what science is and how much fun and how important it is. Motivating young people to get into it and then seeing them do completely unexpected things.

So this is kind of a complicated question, but would you consider yourself a religious or a spiritual person?

It’s a hard question. I have a huge amount of respect for religious people. I do consider myself to be very deeply spiritual, in the sense that I believe that the universe is amazing, and we have no understanding of why it exists. Physics is helping us to understand how it works, but the fact that it does work, and that we can understand it is absolutely amazing. I think that’s the greatest privilege you could possibly hope for in your existence.

I have a deep respect for religion, partly based on my origins in South Africa, where religion played a very positive role ensuring that the transition from Apartheid was peaceful and people didn’t seek revenge in spite of the gross inequities of the past. So in the book I do make some comments about scientists like Richard Dawkins [an outspoken atheist and biologist] for example, who are utterly dismissive of religion…

I appreciated your blasting of Dawkins too. I find him pompous.

[laugh] You know the danger is not religion. The danger is intolerance. And when a scientist stands on a soapbox and says “you religious guys don’t know the first thing about anything!” He’s not admitting his own ignorance and fallibility. We’re all in this together. I see that scientists can make terrible mistakes too. There’s no guarantee of good behavior because you’re a scientist.

I think it’s very sad that this sort of apparent conflict exists. One of my scientific heroes was [Georges] Lemaitre, a Jesuit priest. He’s the founder of the Big Bang theory, and people asked him “how can you study cosmology and study the Big Bang and all of that—the creation of the universe—and at the same time be a Catholic priest? Aren’t you questioning God when you do this?” And he said, “It’s just two facets of existence. It’s like swimming and walking. You use different muscles. And becoming good at one shouldn’t prevent you doing the other.”

Religion and science are not mutually exclusive for him then.

Not at all! No. It’s part of who we are. There’s a lot of mystery about our existence.

When I was a really small child I lived with my grandmother when my parents were in jail [both his parents did jail time during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa], and she was deeply religious. I saw the attraction. Not just the attraction, but the spiritual side of it. This appreciation.

I remember having very long discussions with my relatives who were Christians and we ended up agreeing that essentially the reason they were religious is through their appreciation of the universe and the miracle of existence. And I think what motivates scientists is very much the same thing.

The CBC Massey Lecture “Magic That Works” with Neil Turok will take place on Wednesday, October 10 at 8pm. Tickets are $25/$15, and are available at the Arts & Culture Centre box office. The print version of the entire lecture series is available now, and is published by House of Anansi Press.


  1. Elling Lien · July 24, 2012

    Here’s an excellent, easy-to-read article on quantum computing from the New York Times.

  2. Betty · July 24, 2012

    This was a great interview!
    I really liked the lecture as well, but I found afterwords I really just wanted to pick his brain on topics he didn’t go into great detail on and (obviously) couldn’t. I’m glad I came across this! Also, that link is great. You are seriously the best. :)

  3. Elling Lien · July 24, 2012

    Thanks Betty, I had a lot of fun talking to him. If you liked the lecture, the book is a worthwhile investment of your time. It’s a pretty fast read too, considering the heavy subject matter.

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