Since I was a little kid, I’ve had a fascination with the universe. I had a little telescope, a glow-in-the-dark night sky book, and a home planetarium, and yes, in case you are wondering, I was the cool kid on our street. One of the best moments I shared with my dad was in 2003 during the Northeast blackout: he and I spent a couple hours lying in deck chairs staring into a sky filled with the most stars I have ever seen. I dreamed of becoming an astronomer until it became cruelly apparent that I was not going to pass grade 12 physics without the help of my little sister (I squeaked by; she got an A+). Our physics teacher, Mr. Chung, had disliked me since grade 9 when he sent me, along with a group of friends, to the principal’s office for yakking incessantly outside his in-progress science class. This would be an excellent excuse for my pathetic grade in physics were it not for the stark reality that I was terrible at chemistry, math (I didn’t even attempt calculus or algebra), and biology (although with a massive effort I managed a solid B). By grade 11 it was clear I was not to be an astronomer or, a cardiologist, my second-choice career. Luckily by this point I’d discovered an affinity for languages so had decided to become a diplomat. Crisis averted.
Despite this change in life path, I’ve always retained a sense of wonder about the workings of the universe and how it all began. So I was excited to learn that the 2012 Massey Lecture would be given by Neil Turok, Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Waterloo, Ontario. I didn’t get a chance to actually attend the lecture held in Vancouver but I purchased the compilation book, entitled The Universe Within. I was completely captivated by this book: it gives a chronological account of the evolution of our understanding of the universe and of physical laws, beginning with Anaximander in 600 BC and ending with M-Theory. The best thing about this book is that instead of glossing over difficult theoretical concepts, Turok actually tries to explain them in a way that those of us inept at math can actually begin to grasp. For example, Turok describes the discovery of the photon and the beginning of quantum physics: “The strange story of the quantum begins with the humble electric light bult. In the early 1890s, Max Planck, then a professor in Berlin, was advising the German Bureau of Standards on how to make light bulbs more efficient so that they would give out the maximum light for the least electrical power. […] Planck’s task was to predict how much light a hot filament gives out. He knew from Maxwell’s theory that light consists of electromagnetic waves, with each wavelength describing a different colour of light. He had to figure out how much light of each colour a hot object emits. Between 1895 and 1900, Planck made a series of unsuccessful attempts. Eventually, in what he later called an ‘act of despair’, he more or less worked backward from the data, inferring a new rule of physics: that light waves could accept energy only in packets, or ‘quanta’. The energy of a packet was given by a new constant of nature, Planck’s constant, times the oscillation frequency of the light wave: the number of times per second the electric and magnetic fields vibrate back and forth as an electromagnetic wave travels past any point in space. The oscillation frequency is given by the speed of light divided by the wavelength of the light. Planck found that with this rule he could perfectly match the experimental measurements of the spectrum of light emitted from hot objects. Much later, Planck’s energy packets became known as photons” (61-62). Don’t you feel smarter now? I know I did. If you enjoyed explanations like that, this book is full of them. I fully anticipate reading the whole thing again at some point just to drill in some of this knowledge. Maybe after a re-read, I’ll be ready to tackle Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time...a humbling experience the first time around. But that’s for a different post.