“We live in a worried world that seems short of good ideas,” Neil Turok writes in The Universe Within, this year’s CBC Massey Lectures. But his cross-country lecture tour and the accompanying book are dedicated to the proposition that “a good idea can change the world.” He shows how that already happened in ancient Athens, in 18th-century Scotland, in Vienna a century ago and in his native South Africa, where his parents helped defeat the apartheid regime. And Turok, the director of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ont., shows how physics breakthroughs right here in Canada may soon change the world once again.

One does not need to look far to find examples where science’s success has encouraged a certain overreach and disconnect. There is a tendency to exaggerate the significance of scientific discoveries, and to dismiss nonscientific ideas as irrelevant.

Many scientists, for example, express the viewpoint that the universe seems pointless at a deep level, and that our situation is somehow tragic. For myself, I find this position hard to understand. Merely to be alive, to experience and to appreciate the wonder of the universe and to be able to share it with others is a miracle. I can only think that it is the separation of scientists from society, caused by the focus and intensity of their research, that leads them to be so dismissive of other aspects of human existence. Of course, taking the view that the universe seems pointless is also a convenient way for scientists to eliminate any prior prejudices or ulterior motives from their research. They want to figure out how things work without being biased by any thoughts of why they might work that way. It is reasonable to postpone questions of purpose when we have no scientific means of answering them. But to deny such influences is not to deal with them. Scientists are often consciously or unconsciously driven by agendas well outside science, even if they do not acknowledge them.

Many people outside science are interested in exactly the questions that scientists prefer to avoid. They want to know what scientific discoveries mean: in the case of cosmology, why the universe exists and why we are here. I think that if science is to overcome the disconnection with society, it needs to be better able to explain science’s greatest lesson: that for the purpose of advancing our knowledge, it is extremely important to doubt constantly and to live with uncertainty. Richard Feynman [the theoretical physicist] put it this way: “This attitude of mind—this attitude of uncertainty—is vital to the scientist, and it is this attitude of mind which the student must first acquire. It becomes a habit of thought. Once acquired, we cannot retreat from it anymore.”