Physics as Humanism

A gifted communicator argues for better living through better science.

While studying British statistical data, 19th–century economist Robert Malthus realized that if trends continued, population would necessarily outgrow food resources. This in turn, Malthus argued, meant that the future held in store unavoidable cycles of famine. He thus concluded, somewhat cynically, that charity toward the indigent was not only useless, but also exacerbated the problem by depleting society’s resources to help the poor survive and reproduce.

We now know how wrong Malthus was. Population has increased but, thanks to technological advances, so has our food supply. To this day Malthusian doomsayers are accused of being nothing but short-sighted pessimists. And yet, faced with our repeated failure to deal with peak oil, global warming and species extinction, it is tempting to wonder if some Malthusian pessimism is in order. Should we continue to put our faith in science and technology?

Neil Turok believes that we should, and in his 2012 Massey lectures, The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos, he argues that the answer will be found in our mind’s ability to make sense of the world. He does not contend that science and technology will necessarily save us, but that a serious historical and philosophical analysis of our scientific knowledge will enable us to direct the development of science and technology in such a way as to fulfil the growing needs of the world population while extending our knowledge of the reality that surrounds us.

For Turok, as for Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg before him, physics is the foundation of any true humanism. But Turok goes further than his predecessors. According to him, the central role that physics must play in a humanistic culture does not simply arise from its promise of a unified and objective human knowledge; its role derives from our privileged place in the cosmos. “We are not [the universe’s] accidental byproducts; we are the leading edge of its evolution,” Turok claims.
“Our ability to explain the world is fundamental to who we are, and to our future. Science and society’s mission should be one and the same.”

In other words, Turok believes that an analysis of our scientific theories and their development is nothing less than an analysis of what makes us human. Many will find this claim contentious. I do. But it clearly establishes the larger perspective in which Turok inscribes his work as one of Canada’s leading theoretical physicists. In a country where governments increasingly demand tangible (i.e., patentable) results, Turok rightly reminds us that the work of the theoretical physicist is most meaningful and important, adding that it is also far from a purely academic exercise. As one of the foundational pillars of human knowledge, Turok suggests, physics is embedded in society and hence necessarily demands political and social action. If science in general—and physics in particular—makes the quest for a better world possible, Turok argues, it is because of its profoundly human and democratic approach to knowledge. “In its opposition to dogma and its willingness to live with uncertainty,” reflects Turok, “science is in many ways a model for society.”

Turok thus puts great social responsibility on the shoulders of scientists, something that many have eschewed in the past. As Turok reminds us, even eminent physicists such as John von Neumann—the father of modern computing—or Richard Feynman—the colourful Nobel physicist—have defended their right to “social irresponsibility.” Not so for Turok, who is an inspirational and engaged academic. Best known in Canada as the director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, an institution reputed for its outreach programs, Turok is also the founder of the African Institute for Mathematical Science, a network of teaching and research centres devoted to increasing young African scholars’ access to higher mathematics.

It is therefore with deep confidence in the moral responsibility of scientists and their ability to discover the truth about the reality surrounding us that Turok offers his Massey lectures as a tour of the development, current state and future of physics. The first two lectures, “Magic That Works” and “Our Imaginary Reality,” take us from the development of the first stone tools to Newtonian physics to the paradoxes of quantum physics.

The originality of Turok’s short history of physics is the central role that the development of mathematical tools play in it. “Mathematics can take us far beyond our natural instinct for understanding the world,” explains Turok. It is the “magic that works.” And so, rather than avoiding any reference to the use of mathematics in physics—as most popular science writers do—Turok invites us to reflect on the meaning of the abstruse Hamiltonian and the unifying role of the ubiquitous number e (2.71828). Scared? You should not be. Turok’s simple prose and insightful analogies are easy to follow and offer rare access to the deep understanding shared by physicists of his stature of the relationship between mathematical and physical concepts.

These first two lectures also exemplify how a historical and philosophical account of the development of science can lead us to a deeper understanding of our physical theories and of their limits. Yes, Turok admits, the domains of application of our mathematical models are restricted by their fundamental hypotheses. When these basic assumptions collapse, our whole world fails with them. But it is our ability to understand the reasons behind these breakdowns that enables us “to rise to the next level of existence, the next stage in the evolution of ourselves and of the universe.”

What will this next stage be then? It will, argues Turok, arise from an understanding of the problems faced by our current cosmological and particle physics theories. Turok’s third and fourth lectures, “What Banged?” and “The World in an Equation,” thus explore our failure to understand the universe on either a very large or very small scale. Solving these problems, Turok concludes, will require two important changes on our part. First, we will need to return to modes of thinking that prevailed at earlier times. This will in turn demand a creative, innovative and original research community, one that will harbour new ways of thinking and, consequently, new kinds of thinkers. The democratization of knowledge is not only a question of social justice; it is essential to the progress of science. Science, Turok claims, needs new geniuses, like Emmy Noether, who articulated the fundamental role that symmetry plays in our interpretation of physical theories when, in 1918, women were still barred from academia—or like the taciturn Nobel physicist Paul Dirac, who predicted the existence of antiparticles. It is such people, coming out of nowhere, that will, Turok argues, bring with them a new way to view the world. We must therefore make sure that wherever they are, whether it is New York or Kigali, they will be given the opportunity to access and contribute to fundamental research.

But more than new kinds of physicists will be needed if we want to respond to the environmental, social and financial challenges we now face. New technology will also be needed. Turok’s fifth and final lecture, “The Opportunity of All Time,” explores the potential of future technology, notably quantum computing, which promises not only massive data-processing capabilities, but also massive data-generating capabilities. The social benefits of such a technology, Turok believes, will be enormous. Quantum computers will be so powerful that they will not merely analyze gigantic data sets to search for new medications, create new machines or detect new risks to human health; they will literally write entire “quantum” libraries filled with books no one has written or read. They will generate knowledge that has not yet been discovered.

The problem with Turok’s optimistic picture of the future is that it is based on the belief that—notwithstanding our past—inequality and suffering will disappear if scientific research is guided by “a continued commitment to humane principles, and to conducting science on behalf of society.” This implies that it is somehow possible to implement a technology in a way that is, if not entirely beneficial to humanity, at least neutral. I see few reasons to adopt such a hopeful view of science and technology. It is not that I believe that some technologies are intrinsically bad. Nor do I want to claim that technology is simultaneously bad and good. What I mean is that assigning any moral agency (or moral neutrality) to any object, process or technique is anthropocentric and highly flawed.

We should not simply displace this moral responsibility to the developers or users of technology either. Slogans such as “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people” suggest that technology is in and of itself without ethical effects and that, so long as its users act morally, any technology will be beneficial to humanity. True, computers are now the censor’s most powerful tool, but, we are reminded, they do not need to be so. The public computers embedded in Indian city walls enable thousands of poor children to download programs, videos, music and information that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. Fair enough. But there is a more fundamental ethical problem underlying the use of any technology that I would have liked Turok to acknowledge in his final lecture: namely, the redefinition of social justice that the introduction of any new technology demands.

Let me clarify with the example of the now ever-present quick-response—or QR—codes: the little black-and-white squares created with one intention in mind: to give easy and rapid access to information. Originally created for the automotive industry, QR codes have satisfied this purpose beautifully and are now found in the most diverse places: in newspaper ads, along nature trails, beside historical monuments, and even on fruits and vegetables. QR codes have notably benefited museums by enabling them to better fulfil their most important mandate: to give to the general public the greatest possible access to their collections. QR codes now link museum visitors to audio-guides, videos, archival material, pictures of objects in storage and much more. Or, more precisely, they link visitors with cell phones to this information. Those too poor to possess a smart phone simply cannot access this knowledge. The generally beneficial QR code has unwittingly disturbed the previous state of social equilibrium in a small, but meaningful way. Before its introduction, the difference between rich and poor museum visitors was essentially reflected by the time at which they could visit the institutions. People unable to afford regular admission could only visit museums on days admission was free. Now poor and rich people have completely different experiences of the museums; they have access to a different quantity and quality of information. The problem is not so much that the QR codes have slightly increased the rich-poor divide in our society. The problem is that in our enthusiasm for this new technology, we failed to discuss this divide and to decide, as a community, whether the change this technology was bringing was one we were morally ready to accept.

Historians will readily point out that an overly positive attitude toward science and technology—such as Turok often displays—tends to be closely related to the uncritical, self-congratulatory or over-enthusiastic accounts scientists give of their disciplines. Turok’s lectures would, without a doubt, fall into this category. He rightly points out, for example, that Galileo’s insistence on experimentation and his astronomical observations were instrumental in the fall of the Ptolemaic system. But he fails to mention that, according to the heliocentric system Galileo defended, the Earth’s motion around the sun should give terrestrial observers the impression that stars are moving with respect to one another, a phenomenon that was neither observed nor observable in the 17th century. Not all those who doubted Galileo’s conclusion were ignorant churchmen.

But Turok is quite aware that his narrative is cursory. In fact, he warns us from the very beginning that The Universe Within is not to be conceived as a researched academic history of physics. The disclosure is clear, honest and unapologetic: “I am not a philosopher, historian, or an art or literary critic,” he admits. “My goal is to celebrate the emergence of our ability to understand the universe … and to contemplate what it might mean for our future.”

In other words, attacking The Universe Within on the grounds that it is not a proper history of science would miss the whole point of the lectures. They are not a history of science. They are what Thomas Kuhn—of Structure of Scientific Revolutions fame—would perhaps have called an “internal disciplinary history,” that is, a narrative where scientists—often prominent ones—reconstruct the intellectual development of their field, celebrating its key figures and describing its history as a series of intellectual revolutions.

Historians usually dismiss such accounts as uncritical triumphalism that ignores the important political, social and economic factors at play in the development of science. Correct: but, for once, I agree with Kuhn. Historians dismiss scientists’ accounts at their own risk (just as, Turok would point out, scientists dismissing the role of history in the development of their disciplines play a dangerous game). The history of science offered to us by physicists of Turok’s stature is not a history of science per se. It is a narrative about how these scientists conceptualize the world, interpret the strengths and weaknesses of their theories, and comprehend their role in society. It is a way for scientists to construct their disciplines and their respective domains of knowledge while entering into a debate on the subject with the rest of the population. In this respect, such narratives are the first step toward bridging the gap between the “two cultures” that Turok—along with C.P. Snow—deplores so greatly.

For a book as concise as The Universe Within, Turok’s hope—to offer a) an overview of the history of physics while b) sharing the insight that physicists have on the close relationships existing between nature and mathematical thought, in order c) to help us understand how future technology will solve our problems and lead to a new understanding of the cosmos—was undoubtedly too bold. But it is a genuine invitation to rethink physics as a central part of modern culture, one that I hope many will accept. –