Neil Turok and the secrets of the universe


Why are we here? One of the world’s greatest physicists on the search for answers

“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.”

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  1. Oh! dear!  An absence of human egotistical  anthropomorphic purpose in the universe! 

    Perhaps a mathematical calculation of the percentage of matter in the Universe which is formed into humans, might put this into perspective!

    Nice picture from NASA – It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the anti-science whinge or the Universe!

  2. Whatever the purpose some god might have had in creating the universe and having us play out some game to determine who gets to eat cream cakes for eternity, you’re always going to wonder what purpose there is to it all. 

    Ultimately, universal purpose is, it seems to me, just an infinitely recursive irresolvable issue.

  3. I have never wondered about purpose. I have never needed meaning. I have always been satisfied with witnessing and wondering what more there is to know, or figure out. Why the need for meaning and purpose, always? I just don’t see it as important nor have I ever assumed it to even be likely. How are we here? OK, I would like to know but I wouldn’t spend my life trying to find out. Why are we here? Not even a question in my book… we are here.

  4. If there were some meddling Church Lady running the universe imposing their Puritanical views on others, I would be the first to join a rebellion. One of the nice features of the universe is you get to choose your own purpose, one that fits you to a tee.

  5. When a lay person asks a scientist “Why are we here?” or “What is the purpose of the universe?” they are presuming the existence of some deity, creator of man and the universe who has motivations. There is no such deity, so the questions are meaningless. However, people exist, and they are free to assign purposes, relative to themselves, for everything. The human purpose for the horse is recreational riding. However, that not likely the way the horse sees it.

  6. Asking “What is the purpose of the universe” is bit like picking up a rounded rock by a river and asking “What tool was this rock shaped to be?” You are erroneously presuming that some intelligence deliberately shaped it. Just the mindless erosion of the river water rounded it, with no intent to use it for some purpose once it was sufficiently spherical.

  7. Every thing happens because environmental variables allow it to happen.

    Thus, the purpose of the universe is to provide environmental variables.

  8. I’m becoming disenfranchised with this site…as a member of over 5 years….I’m fucked, not fecked, off with the new set up and Disqus…and I really don’t think I’m on my own. If this is supposed to be a new broom sweeping clean as was the case in the past, all I can say is it’s working. 
    If a thread makes double figures these days it is an exemption, not the rule….. comments on the old site often made hundreds of comments, sometimes good topics made thousands of comments. More importantly  it was a great place to learn stuff, even for a balloon like me.
    C’mon Mike. Mod’s. RD. letsbeeavenue…this site is dying on its feet and that makes me very sad.

  9. It has been frustrating, Paul.   This place gave me access to something that I could never find elsewhere. 

    >More importantly it was a great place to learn stuff, even for a balloon like me.

    You’re no balloon and anyone acquainted with your contributions  knows that.  But you described exactly what this site did for me. 

    They have made it clear that they are busy working on writing their own system and leaving Disqus in the dust, which would be excellent.   I have confidence that things will get better. 

    I miss the discussions.  I still pop in every day for the great updates and to read the comments from new and old.   (So nice to see both.)

    Discussions must be a logistical nightmare.  Especially when they cover a wide range of the most substantial topics.  The mods had their hands full most of the time, but managed to maintain and referee the most fantastic round tables, where the most knowledgeable and the most earnest rookies could have a place.

     I learned more (a ton) from the discussions than I ever could have learned from a superficial glance of the articles.   The highest standards of argument were set on every subject by the simplest rules and by consistent and fair refereeing.  

    This place is still a valuable place to check into, and I look forward to their new non-Disqus system. 

    I hope it will encourage discussion and make theists (who have all but disappeared) feel welcome again.  I always thought it set a good example for theists (and non-theists) about how to have conversations. 

    I look forward to the new non-disqus improvements. 

    I must say that I was spoiled.  It’s still a great site that provides a great service. 

    But I miss the discussions.  I miss the opportunity to think things through and ask stupid questions and the deep learning that provides. 

    I also miss your clinics  (and JH’s) on the bible.  🙂

    All I can say is long live  But I can’t wait for the next transition.

  10. And back on topic. 

    >Perhaps a mathematical calculation of the percentage of matter in the Universe which is formed into humans, might put this into perspective!

    Precisely.  I have no understanding about our fixation on “purpose”.

    But when it comes to “meaning”, there is no meaning in the idea that it is all about me or about humans in general. 

    That the evidence points in the other direction, is a relief.

    Not that that’s why I accept the evidence.  I accept it because it is the evidence. 

    But I’ve become highly distrustful of the common human inclination to believe things because it puts us at the centre. 

    What’s meaningful about that?

  11. I think there are a variety of reasons for decreased readership. I’m not convinced that the comments system changes is the biggest, or even given it were, that changing it again will stop the attrition of reader return rates. I don’t know what strategy has for developing and retaining readership, for instance statistics gathering, tracking and division of reader influx sources, organised promotion via other sites, consideration of reader response (views, links, reposts and comments) to articles (I think decisions about this should be intuitively considered and reasoned rather than based on particular stats). That shouldn’t become an overriding objective, akin to TV ratings, but I think it’s something that could be usefully publicly examined.

  12. The position of healthy skeptical doubt that is paramount in maintaining and developing a healthy scientific mind, can at times be viewed as a reason for those uninterested in the process of discovery, as a weakness of science. “You don’t know!” bellow the diminishing faithful. “Exactly” whisper back the ever growing throng.

  13. >> I’m becoming disenfranchised with this site…as a member of over 5 years….I’m fucked, not fecked, off with the new set up and Disqus…and..

    I agree Usenet was more .. er … usable …

    > They have made it clear that they are busy working on writing their own system and leaving Disqus in the dust, which would be excellent.   I have confidence that things will get better.

    No need to reinvent the egg, there are numerous solutions out there

  14. I must apologise. I was feeling a bit forlorn and I was missing a lot of ‘old friends and foes’. My fear is that no one will be left by the time this sorts itself out. It’s probably as a result of having spent too much time at this site….it’s like a drug…and likely not healthy.

    Frustration aside, I do appreciate all the hard work going on behind the scenes, I d, and I am waiting on a Phoenix rising from the ashes…just not too late I hope.

    Your comment has given me some hope….you may not be making the usual contributions, but knowing you are lurking means others might be too and that is gratifying.

    Getting 8 likes means I am not alone in my thoughts which also gives a degree of solace.

    Gurn over…no more off topic whining.

  15. We are aware of users’ unhappiness with the Disqus system and, as you know, the technical team are working hard to replace it.
    In the meantime,  please don’t derail threads by going off topic. We’ve been allowing various comments about the new site even where they’ve been off-topic, just because we know that it has involved a number of changes that people have wanted to comment on – but now we’re asking you to leave the technical team to focus on their work undistracted, and to use the threads for their intended purpose.

    We will remove further off-topic comments.

    Thank you.

    The mods

  16. i think people are conditioned to feel guilty if they’re grateful for something but have no one to thank

    purpose is personal and that’s how it should be. sometimes i do stuff for no reason, if everthing had a reason, there’d be no such thing as fun.

    the trick is not to see the miracle of personal experience as something that you need to invent someone to thank, but to find other cats/people to share it with. they make it better, then you can thank them.


    Too many scientists don’t tell truth to power and maybe that is why we have such a worried world and a disenchanted RD site following.

    Which is why programmes on television like RD’s last night are so heartening. Although I’m a member of the choir, nevertheless, I never bore of hearing him explain it all. Now all we need to do is to get more of the irrationals to watch these type of educational programmes rather than the X Factor rubbish rather or reaching for the remote in order to change channel.

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