Friday, December 20, 2013

Seven billion brains

Neil Turok is a theoretical physicist and campaigner for various progressive causes including his particular quest to promote mathematics and science education in Africa. A very worthy cause, you might say. And I agree.

But Turok's na├»ve enthusiasm – for this and other ideas – leads him to make extravagent claims and comparisons.

For example, his talk about a future "African Einstein" is pure hype and verges on the meaningless. For one thing, science in general and physics in particular have changed dramatically in the last hundred years such that individual scientists will never again play the prominent roles they once did.

Turok's most recent book, The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos* (based on his Massey Lectures given in late 2012), is a disorganized and confused mixture of popular science, social advocacy and mystical-sounding speculation.

I'll focus on a particularly vacuous section (pp. 199-201). Here Turok raises (for the third time in the book) the issue of the discrimination and prejudice once faced by European Jews. When eventually, in the latter part if the 19th century, they gained access to scientific and technical education they were (as he puts it) "hugely motivated to ... show that Jews could do every bit as well as anybody else."

It follows from this, apparently, that other excluded groups (such as Africans) hold the key to future scientific breakthroughs.

Turok is now really hitting his stride...

"Which brings me," he writes, "back to the question of unification, both of peoples across the planet and of our understanding of the world. [Don't you love this?] The search for a superunified theory is an extremely ambitious goal. A priori, it would seem to be hopeless: we are tiny, feeble creatures dwarfed by the universe around us. Our only tools are our minds and our ingenuity. But these have enabled us to come amazingly far. If we think of the world today, with seven billion minds, many in emerging economies and societies, it is clear there is a potential gold mine of talent... If opportunities are opened, we can anticipate waves of motivated, original young people capable of transformative discoveries.

Who are we in the end? As far as we know, we represent something very rare in the universe..."

Forgive me if I gloss over Turok's one hundred and fifty word summary of the cosmic and biological evolution which has brought us to "the threshold of a new phase of evolution". He continues:

"Great mysteries remain. Why did the universe emerge from the big bang with a set of physical laws that gave rise to heavy elements and allowed complex chemistry? Why did these laws allow for planets to form around stars, with water, organic molecules, an atmosphere and the other requirements for life? Why did the DNA-protein machinery, developed and selected for in the evolution of single-cell organisms, turn out to be able to code for complex creatures like ourselves? How and why did consciousness emerge?"

There is much more of this contentless verbiage. Like this gem (which reminds me of something an ousted Prime Minister with a particularly healthy ego said** when asked what he would be doing in the future):

"We cannot know what new technologies we will create, but if the past is any guide, they will be extraordinary."

Obviously, though, all these rhetorical questions and speculations are pointing in a particular direction, are leading up to something. "Might we be the means," asks Turok, "for the universe to gain a consciousness of itself?"

What he seems to be suggesting is that there is some kind of master plan. And this interpretation is reinforced by the attention given to the writings of (of all people) the Jesuit mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (whom Turok insists on calling 'de Chardin' as if Teilhard was a given name).

The main lesson (and it is an important one) I take from The Universe Within is that scientific and mathematical expertise in no way guarantees that sense of critical awareness which is so necessary for sound judgement on broader intellectual and social matters. Theoretical physicists should be listened to only when they are talking about theoretical physics.

But even here we have to be careful, as many physicists – Turok amongst them – cannot resist trading on their scientific expertise to underscore broader philosophical and religious points which they wish (for non-scientific reasons) to make.

Turok claims, for example, that according to the laws of quantum physics, "... we are not irrelevant bystanders. On the contrary, what we see depends upon what we decide to observe. Unlike classical physics, quantum physics allows for, but does not yet explain, an element of free will." (The Universe Within, p. 168)

Apart from the fact that "free will" is a thoroughly theological concept which he just throws in here without any discussion or elaboration, Turok is glossing over very real controversies about the interpretation and implications of contemporary physics.

It may well be that consciousness does lie at the heart of reality (though on most recent interpretations quantum mechanics does not assume or imply this, at least to my knowledge). It may even be that the concept of free will can be rehabilitated.

But Turok's pronouncements on these sorts of issues are no more illuminating than most of his speculations and predictions about human progress.


* Allen & Unwin, 2013.

** He didn't know what he would be doing, but whatever it was it would be big!