The God Particle

What explains the current wave of popular physics?

Illustration by Neil Doshi
Illustration by Neil Doshi

When Neil Turok was a child in South Africa, both his mother and father served time in jail for resisting the apartheid regime, and Neil was sent to live with his grandmother. Unlike his parents, she was religious. She introduced him to the Bible, and he was thrilled; he wanted, more than anything, to have one of his own. “I loved the idea of a book that held the answer to everything,” he recalls at the start of his new work, The Universe Within.

Turok’s infatuation with religion seems to have ended as quickly as it began (there is no further mention of it in the book), but it was just the beginning of a lifelong quest for answers. He went on to study theoretical physics at the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, and held academic posts in the United States and England before moving to Waterloo, Ontario, in 2008, to take on the role of director at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He has been instrumental in developing Perimeter’s reputation as one of the world’s leading centres for cutting-edge theoretical physics as well as public outreach. Unlocking the secrets of the universe is not enough; at Perimeter, they want everyone to share in the joy of discovery.

Of course, explaining the universe is a tricky business (and I can’t quite say that, even to myself, without sounding as if I’m setting up a Woody Allen joke). For one thing, no matter how much we think we know about what the universe has been up to since the big bang, 13.7 billion years ago, there is always that pesky question of what came before. Cosmologists have often said their explanations could reach back almost to, but not beyond, “time zero.” There was a sense that whatever may have happened before that—if “before” holds any meaning in that context—must lie in the domain of philosophy or theology. These days, however, they are less shy about pushing through that barrier.

Turok, in collaboration with Princeton theoretical physicist Paul Steinhardt and others, is responsible for one of the most notable recent attempts. Their so-called cyclic model—based on M-theory, which is related to string theory—posits that our universe is just one slice of a much larger, higher-dimensional space, and that the occasional collision of two parallel slices, as seen from within any particular slice, would look very much like a classic big bang. If Turok is right, it will require a radical rethinking of time zero. What we have been calling the big bang would more properly be described as a transition from one cosmological era to another, in a possibly eternal cosmos.

These are heady ideas, and they are not the only ones the reader will find in The Universe Within, as indicated by its broad subtitle, From Quantum to Cosmos. It is in part a guide to modern physics and cosmology—well-worn ground, but one may as well hear about it from someone who has been involved with some of the key discoveries. It is also part autobiography: Turok’s ties with Africa have clearly shaped his vision for what science can be. Far from the cryptic musings of an elite handful of brainiacs, he sees it as an inherently democratic pursuit, one whose full potential will only be realized when youth in the developing world have the same educational opportunities as our own children. (In 2003, he founded the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, headquartered in Muizenberg, South Africa, an initiative that earned him a coveted TED Prize five years later.) And then there is his faith in the power of science, reflected in a breathless optimism that runs through the whole book. Great wonders, we are promised, lie ahead.

As for the physics itself, I’m not sure how much the average reader will manage to digest, but my hunch is that in the end it doesn’t matter. The public appetite for attempts to explain the universe knows no bounds, and ever since Stephen Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time in 1988, books like this have found a ready-made audience. (Hawking’s, in particular, had a reputation for being purchased more than being read.) This fall, when Turok presents a chapter from The Universe Within in each of five cities across Canada, for the 2012 CBC Massey Lectures (to be aired on Ideas in November), I suspect awe will supersede incomprehension. Having followed this wave of popular physics exposition for some twenty years, I have come to the conclusion that public interest goes beyond the appeal of ghostly subatomic particles, the mysteries of black holes, and the birth of the universe, as fascinating as these may be. When physicists start talking about the deepest mysteries of the universe, there is always a sense that they’re not just talking about physics. The stakes seem just a bit higher.

The Universe Within does not contain “the answer to everything,” as the Bible of Turok’s childhood seemed to. It does not even contain the long-sought “theory of everything,” a term tossed around mostly by journalists in the ’80s and ’90s, as physicists sought a single theoretical framework that would unify Einstein’s theory of gravity, known as general relativity, with quantum mechanics. String theory is often touted as the leading candidate, though progress has been slower than many had hoped. (Its leading critic happens to be Lee Smolin, one of Turok’s Perimeter colleagues and author of The Trouble with Physics, among Amazon’s bestselling books about the field.)

But Turok consoles us with something else that physics has produced, which satisfies some of the same urges: a mathematical equation for the wave function of the entire universe. He first encountered a version of this “magic formula,” as he calls it, back in graduate school, and he presents it here in an original form that describes all the connections between the known fields and forces of the universe. (Full confession: as the author of Universe on a T-shirt, I am quite enthusiastic about this sort of thing.) Turok says he was always struck by its power and beauty. The reader will likely be struck by its sheer girth. On the left-hand side, we have Schrödinger’s Ψ (the wave function we are trying to work out), and on the right a ginormous integral sign, and then the number e (the base of natural logarithms), raised to the power of another integral, and—well, let me put it this way: you would have to use a rather small typeface to fit the whole equation on a T-shirt. Nevertheless, with this magic formula in hand, “all you have to do is master the language and learn how to calculate,” Turok writes, “and in principle you understand at a basic level all of the laws governing every single physical process in the universe.”

This echoes a famous statement by Galileo, who declared some 400 years ago that Nature “is written in the language of mathematics.” Without a grasp of this vocabulary, “one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.” And he didn’t even have the benefit of certain mathematical tricks, such as “imaginary numbers.” These seemingly bizarre entities (think of the square root of minus one) turn out to be spectacularly useful, Turok assures us. A chapter in which he shows how they can help us make sense of the quantum world is titled, trippily enough, “Our Imaginary Reality.” Mathematics, he insists, now functions like a third eye, enabling us “to see and understand how things work in realms so remote from our experience that they cannot be visualized.”

He is aware, of course, that most of us are, if not third eye blind, then third eye impaired. Take M-theory, for example. With its plethora of dimensions (eleven at last count), it is “the most mathematical theory in all of physics, and I won’t even try to describe it here,” Turok writes just past the book’s halfway mark. Perhaps that is just as well; on the streetcar of popular physics writing, many choose this stop to disembark. Bill Bryson, the bestselling American travel writer, abandons all hope at precisely the same point in A Short History of Nearly Everything. Quoting a highly technical passage from a New York Times article—“The ekpyrotic process begins far in the indefinite past with a pair of flat empty branes sitting parallel to each other in a warped five-dimensional space”—he concludes, “No arguing with that. No understanding it either.”

That is the trade-off of modern physics. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, science was something that anyone with free time on their hands (which in those days generally meant someone male and wealthy) could pursue. Twenty-first-century science, as Turok emphasizes, is infinitely more democratic, but it also requires far more study, and that imposes its own exclusivity. Books like The Universe Within attempt to bring science to the masses—not through technical explanation, perhaps, but through story and metaphor, with their hint of the transcendent.

“Physics isn’t a religion,” Leon Lederman once quipped. “If it were, we’d have a much easier time raising money.” Lederman, besides being the sharpest-tongued physicist since pop physics icon Richard Feynman, coined the phrase “the God particle,” in reference to an elusive subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson. It was meant to be a catchy nickname, a metaphor, akin to Stephen Hawking’s desire to “know the mind of God,” but it has dogged Lederman through all the years it has taken for scientists to prove its existence. (It was only detected this year, at the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva.) For many consumers of popular science, it seems, fundamental physics will always evoke the sublime.

For millennia, we imagined that the universe was made for our benefit, and in the early days of science—up to and including the work of Newton in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—it was thought that each new scientific discovery was further proof of God’s beneficent handiwork. Gradually, however, God began to disappear from scientific explanations, not due to any particular animosity toward the divine, but merely because the explanations were getting better and better, and invoking a deity no longer seemed necessary. When Pierre Simon Laplace presented his work to Napoleon Bonaparte at the turn of the nineteenth century, the emperor asked him about the place of God in his system. The scientist is said to have replied, “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Whether today’s physicists use the language of theology metaphorically (such as Lederman and Hawking) or omit it (like Turok and most of his colleagues) doesn’t seem to matter: God always finds a way of sneaking in. A 2008 lecture by renowned English physicist Sir Roger Penrose is a case in point. Around the time that Turok arrived at Perimeter, Penrose gave a talk as part of the institute’s wildly popular public lecture series. Like Turok, he is not afraid to reach beyond time zero, and he dazzled his audience with his own theory of a bouncing cosmos, in which our big bang was perhaps one of many. (It is superficially similar to Turok’s cyclic model, though it makes do with four dimensions and ignores quantum effects.) He illustrated the talk with his trademark hand-drawn overheads, deceptively simple renderings of difficult concepts such as Minkowski space-time and black hole horizons. A few days later, his theory made the cover of the National Post. “If the Big Bang recycles,” a sub-headline asked, “what does that mean about God? ” Penrose had not mentioned God in his lecture, but apparently the reporter sensed the deity’s presence (or absence) in the auditorium that evening.

Turok is unlikely to silence such whisperings at his Massey Lectures; he knows his audience in this sense as well. “Many people outside science are interested in exactly the questions that scientists prefer to avoid,” he writes. “They want to know what scientific discoveries mean: in the case of cosmology, why the universe exists and why we are here.” The Universe Within does not tell us; nor is it clear whether Turok expects science to one day answer such questions. But some passages hint at the limits of traditional reductionist science. “Are we, as some scientists would say, merely biological machines, driven by the need to replicate our selfish genes? ” he asks. “If we can, as I believe, be much more than this, from where can we draw our wisdom? ”

The Universe Within, like so many similar works of popular physics, manages to avoid a head-on confrontation with religion even as it veers into that domain. And not just religion, but philosophy, perhaps the more formidable opponent these days. Earlier this year, when physicist–cum–public intellectual Lawrence M. Krauss published A Universe from Nothing, in which he argues that quantum theory can resolve that oldest of cosmic mysteries—why there is something instead of nothing—a small army of philosophers called foul, beginning with David Albert’s stinging review in the New York Times. Albert asks, “Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? ” He then takes on quantum field theory (another branch of quantum theory). It has “nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.”

Harsh words, but he may have a point. At any rate, the very fact that feathers have been ruffled suggests that science is stretching its wings, as it has for four centuries. Given enough elbow room, Turok suggests, it does indeed promise something magnificent: a better world. The quantum revolution that began just under 100 years ago continues to unfold, he says, and it will dramatically change the world in the coming decades. Much of it centres on the sheer power of computation on the horizon, which will bring, for example, improved security for digital information, as well as better and faster medical diagnoses. He also comes up with at least one howler: he says that ultra-powerful quantum computers will produce “every possible ordering of letters and words in a book, and therefore every book that could ever be written”; all we have to do is look for the good ones. (I don’t think I will volunteer for the search team.) His essential point, however, is clear: “A new world is now beckoning.… On the horizon are technologies and understanding beyond anything we have experienced so far.”

Science, especially the reductionist sort, is sometimes accused of sucking the wonder out of life. For Turok, the wonder remains intact, and this probably explains his optimism. Moreover, a peculiar sort of faith, very different from the religious kind, remains. He sees great things ahead, and he sees science as a—I don’t want to say “saviour.” Let’s call it a wonderful and very useful tool. And if science has its limits, is that such a bad thing? If it is a choice between building a better world and explaining everything about everything, perhaps the former is the more noble goal.

This appeared in the December 2012 issue.

Dan Falk
Dan Falk (@danfalk) is a science journalist. His latest book is The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's Universe.
Neil Doshi
Neil Doshi, a regular Walrus contributor, has designed products for and Poketo.