Modifié le : 2019/08/03

Slept for part of the day, still bur­dened by the good Christ­mas meal and the plea­sures that came with it. Between these uncon­scious peri­ods, I took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to go through the last half of an inspir­ing book, The Uni­verse With­in, by Neil Turok.

The author, a renowned physi­cist, tells us about the gen­e­sis of quan­tum physics. In style acces­si­ble to every­one (well, you still have to con­cen­trate…), Tur­ok sum­ma­rizes more than two cen­turies of dis­cov­er­ies (from New­ton to today) in terms of knowl­edge of the cos­mos. It is very infor­ma­tive, some­times dif­fi­cult, and although it spares us math­e­mat­ics, we come to under­stand the var­i­ous cur­rent foun­da­tions that gov­ern the mul­ti­ple theories.

Through­out the book, Tur­ok dis­cuss­es in par­al­lel the impor­tance of edu­ca­tion, the val­ue of sci­ence, the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of knowl­edge, etc. (he is him­self of South African ori­gin, his father hav­ing fled the abus­es of apartheid.) He also tries to show us that we are at a turn­ing point in knowl­edge. We all know that the dis­cov­er­ies of the 1920s have changed the way we exist if only through the almost expo­nen­tial emer­gence of com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy, a direct con­se­quence of the under­stand­ing of phys­i­cal mech­a­nisms made dur­ing this glo­ri­ous period.

The book does, how­ev­er, men­tion the lim­its of this knowl­edge even if, in a con­cise time, we could know if the uni­verse comes from a giant bang or if it is dri­ven by an immea­sur­able pen­du­lum move­ment (the Planck satel­lite is lis­ten­ing for us to the back­ground noise of the uni­verse, the results will arrive in 2013). 70% of the uni­verse is com­posed of void that… has a lot of ener­gy. Anoth­er 20% of the uni­verse is com­posed of “dark mat­ter.” And with­in the remain­ing small 10% is under­stood the mat­ter as we know it.

In the not so dis­tant future, we will be able to build quan­tum com­put­ers that will be fab­u­lous, mon­strous com­pu­ta­tion­al machines (the most com­plex pass­word will be solved in less than a sec­ond, where­as it is esti­mat­ed that with our cur­rent com­put­ers, it would take for­ev­er to uncov­er it). It’s not real­ly sci­ence fic­tion imag­ined by an author who gets car­ried away. The author is, I would remind you, an ordi­nary man.

Trans­for­ma­tions are there­fore com­ing to our door. At the moment, few show us that we are ready to face it. What can we do about it ? This is what the last chap­ters tell us. If the author’s speech may seem, at this stage, worn out, so much we have heard it, I believe that Tur­ok express­es it accu­rate­ly. We are on the verge of a col­li­sion between our anal­o­gous world (bio­log­i­cal, for­mal) and the dig­i­tal world (DNA, all-round knowl­edge, with­out fil­ters, between mag­ic and Franken­stein). Quan­tum com­put­ers are not capa­ble, by them­selves, of “repro­duc­ing” them­selves, or of copy­ing infor­ma­tion, but they will be a sword with an anni­hi­lat­ing edge in the hands of the indi­vid­u­als who will con­trol them. In oth­er words, Tur­ok warns us. While he remains opti­mistic, he fears for our men­tal health. Our knowl­edge is vast, mag­nif­i­cent, but it still strug­gles with the big ques­tions (the eter­nal why). It is our duty, as a liv­ing species that becomes aware of its place in the uni­verse, not to fall into dis­or­der, oth­er­wise what we have acquired may have been in vain.

In short, it is time for sci­ence to resume dia­logue with soci­ety, not only as a source of tech­ni­cal­i­ty but as a means of mak­ing us evolve towards an inner uni­verse in the image and scale of what sur­rounds us. I hope Harp­er has received a copy of this book (I can always dream, I know).