Neil Turok on Investigating the “Unpopular”

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by Rachel Kaufman

Neil Turok. Photo by Deb Baic, The Globe and Mail.

Neil Turok, to hear him tell it, has always been a rebel.

As a student in primary school in Tanzania, Turok says he had teachers who encouraged learning by doing, "going outside as much as possible, making electric motors, taking apart cars." So when he moved to London at age 10, "I was horrified to find that people were doing a hundred sums which were boring—as a mechanical exercise to learn how to do them."

Since then, Turok's been more or less poking holes in the dominant theories of the universe, as well as doing other things that he's been told can't be done. He worked with Stephen Hawking on the inflationary theory of the universe (and later rejected it); he now rejects most of the dominant theories of how the universe came to be. And despite being told he was crazy for doing so, he founded an advanced mathematical institute in Cape Town that has since expanded to six locations across Africa to give young Africans a master's-level math education. For this effort, which he believes will help ensure that the next Einstein will be African, AIP awarded Turok the 2016 John Torrence Tate Award for International Leadership in Physics, which will be presented to him at PhysCon this year.

Born in South Africa to anti-Apartheid activists, Turok's young childhood was spent in Tanzania after his parents, both of whom had done jail time in South Africa, fled the country. "Insects always fascinated me, flowers, wildlife of all kinds," he tells SPS. "Living in Africa was pretty amazing in that respect—we had a lot of interesting bugs." In London he joined the British Entomological and Natural History Society, becoming the first child committee member of a club made up mostly of "retired gentleman naturalists."

He found physics "a bit lifeless" until he got to Cambridge, where he took physics as an "easy option.” But during the course of that year Turok was exposed to cosmology, which he found “mindblowing.” “You have very simple and precise laws but they describe the biggest thing we know—the universe—really well. The cosmos is very far from lifeless; it's the origin of everything. So instead of being concerned about where does life come from, I got interested in where everything came from."

After graduating and working at Princeton, he came back to Cambridge where he gave a talk about the primary cosmology model he was studying at the time. This got Stephen Hawking's attention. "We started working together developing his proposal for the beginning of the universe." As it happens, that rebellious streak struck again: "In my view that work largely showed that his proposal didn't work," Turok chuckles.

With Princeton cosmologist Paul Steinhardt, he developed an alternative, cyclic model for cosmology in which instead of a "big bang" there was a "big bounce" when a previous universe collapsed. But now Turok says, "I went off in this direction not because I particularly believed it to be true, but because I thought it was an important intellectual exercise which might teach us something about what is possible and what is impossible, and by doing that, broaden our minds to show us how much we don't know. If you find two rival theories can explain the same phenomenon in completely different ways, you've still learned something, because you've learned that neither is compelling. We developed the cyclical model more or less in the slightly contrarian spirit."

Around the same time Turok and Steinhardt were publishing their "big bounce" papers, Turok was also working on a deeply personal project. He turned a rundown art deco hotel in Cape Town into the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), an institute where Africans from across the continent can pursue a higher education in math. The school has expanded to six campuses and recently graduated its 1,000th master’s-level student.

Originally, people thought Turok was “nuts” when he proposed AIMS. “They said, ‘Africa needs clean water and food and medicine. Why on earth would Africa need advanced research?’ The people who didn’t think it was nutty were the young Africans themselves.”

“It's been probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he adds. “Most of the AIMS students are the first in their family ever to receive any form of higher education. Each time they go further, it's significant for their communities and their country.” One AIMS graduate played a large role in helping to contain the Ebola crisis in West Africa. “He played a big role in saving many lives, based on his mathematical modeling on what different interventions would result in.” Other graduates have gone on to work in microfinance, lead NGOs, or work in universities around the globe.

Turok now spends his time fundraising and advocating for AIMS, as well as continuing to study the mysteries of the universe. His new interests are in finding an even simpler way to explain the universe.

“This couldn't be a more exciting time observationally,” he says, “but these observations are all pointing to [the idea] that the universe is simpler than any of our current theories can explain. What I believe is these are clues toward a new principle in physics which will explain why the universe is the way it is. My thinking has certainly evolved over the last five years, away from the types of models which are still popular in the field. In my view, these are all too complicated and arbitrary and contrived. The universe is speaking to us and telling us we're missing a very important principle.” As for what that principle is? Turok—along with no small number of AIMS graduates—will be pushing to find out.