TED winner Neil Turok shakes up astro-physics with his version of the universe’s birth.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Neil Turok is a thug. A spectacled, sweatered, antenna-eared thug, but a thug nonetheless for taking on the baddest mo’ fo’ in cosmology. That’s right: The Cambridge University chair of mathematical physics has challenged fellow Cambridge astro-brainiac Stephen Hawking to a theoretical duel.
Cosmology is defined as both the astronomy of the universe’s structure and evolution, and the philosophy that spirals from it. In other words, Turok and Hawking are among those few humans exalted for their data-driven deconstructions of such lofty questions as “What is time? Space? Fate? Freedom?” Both have built their careers obsessing over the beginning of the universe, that hotly debated theoretical instant when nothing became everything and the cosmic clock began ticking.
By challenging Hawking’s widely accepted theory, Turok stages a cosmological coup.
The details are pretty obscure for us plain folk, but Turok takes a stab at it in a May 2007 interview with edge.org (edge.org/3rd_culture/turok07/turok07_index.html). The wasn’t able to catch the intrepid cosmologist before deadline, so we draw from that interview here.
In Hawking’s corner: inflationary theory, which proposes that the universe was born full of repulsive energy that blew up like dynamite, creating space and time. Turok worked with Hawking on the theory a decade ago, but he eventually gave it up because their numbers predicted an empty universe. And our universe is anything but empty.
Turok found a new astro-buddy in Princeton’s Paul Steinhardt, and together they developed a “cyclic model for the universe.” The model uses the idea that particles are actually teeny strings, and there are “higher-dimensional versions of string” called “branes” (short for membranes). Our three dimensions might exist along one of them.
Yep, this is getting heady. But what can you expect from a guy who just won an award from the headiest conference in the known universe?
So inhale deeply and grok this: “The brane we live on could be a sort of sheet-like object floating around in a higher dimension of space,” and the universe “consists of two parallel branes separated by a very, very tiny gap.” In Turok’s and Steinhardt’s theory, those two branes could have collided violently, causing the massive spewing of heat, radiation and particles that we call the Big Bang.
But if that’s how the Bang happened, then it wasn’t the first. “The whole universe might have existed forever, and there would have been a series of these bangs, stretching back into the infinite past, and into the infinite future.”
Thus, Neil Turok helped create the brane collision model to rival Hawking’s inflationary model. “Competition between models is good,” Turok told edge.org. “It helps us see what the strengths and weaknesses [of] our theories are.”
TED doesn’t love Turok only for his spacey brainpower, but also for his hometown heart. In 2003 the South African native founded a postgraduate school, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa.