It takes a special kind of communicator to make physics understandable to the average person. But more than 20 years ago, Stephen Hawking did just that with the publication of “A Brief History of Time,” a popular account of what was known about the origin and evolution of our universe. The book became a best-seller, ignited an interest in the cosmos and made Hawking, a Cambridge University professor, a household name. This summer, he is in Canada to work with scientists at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI), including Neil Turok, PI’s Director. Together, Turok and Hawking, former Cambridge colleagues, developed the Hawking-Turok instanton solutions — a theory that suggested the universe formed from a miniscule twist in matter and spacetime. The two physicists have shared their interests in PI, its scientific endeavours and the importance of physics on various occasions, and their comments are recapped here.
What brings you to PI?
Stephen Hawking: The Perimeter Institute is a very exciting venture. Its chosen scientific focus, quantum theory and spacetime, is very close to my heart. I am strongly supportive of its bold expansion plans and its ambitious research and training programs.
Can you explain the science a bit more?
Neil Turok: On the one hand you have Einstein’s theory of general relativity, describing physics on the largest observable scales — planets, stars, galaxies and the universe itself — where gravity dominates and governs the dynamics of the spacetime arena in which all other physical processes occur. On the other hand, you have quantum theory, describing the behaviour of matter and energy on the smallest observable scales, the atomic and subatomic worlds, and the fundamental particles which move and interact with each other. The twin focus on quantum theory and spacetime places PI at the apex of 21st century theoretical physics and that is a very exciting place to be.
How does a facility like PI encourage the research?
SH: Physics is best communicated in person. In my case, meeting people like (English mathematical physicist) Roger Penrose, then developing new mathematical ways for understanding spacetime, was of crucial importance and enabled me to develop my own ideas.
Perimeter Institute seems to me today to be trying to create a similar atmosphere. With a mix of excellent scientists, inspirational visitors, and first rate students recruited from around the world, I expect exciting discoveries will be made.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges in physics?
SH: Many great challenges lie ahead: understanding the big bang, unifying gravity with quantum mechanics, working out exactly what happens when black holes decay.
How has theoretical physics been important?
NT: Theoretical physics is one of the highest impact, yet lowest cost, fields in science. Its breakthroughs, such as those from Newton, Maxwell and Einstein, advanced our fundamental understanding of the world around us and enabled the creation of new technologies which have literally transformed society.
NT: Today, its ideas drive and help guide giant international experiments like the Large Hadron Collider, which push technology to its limits and inspire the public about science. Theoretical physics is highly interdisciplinary, contributing key concepts to diverse fields from astronomy to neuroscience, pure mathematics to computer science. It is above all a creative field constantly reinventing itself, discovering deeper insights into nature while broadening its range of application.
PI is growing. Tell us about that.
NT: The research facility is doubling in size and has been designed to provide an exceptional environment for the human mind to conceive, visualize and understand the nature of physical reality, from the subatomic world to the entire universe. But PI’s expansion is, above all, about people. The field naturally attracts some of the most brilliant and ambitious young people who are pursuing key questions in basic physics from many different angles. We aim to encourage and focus their efforts and talents within a highly interactive and collaborative community. Ours is a strategic approach to fostering research breakthroughs.
During his six-week stay in Canada, Stephen Hawking is focusing on private research activities and scientific collaborations with other top physicists at PI. He will also provide a special broadcast lecture at 8 p.m.(EDT) on June 20, 2010, on TVO (formerly TVOntario), which will also be viewable across the country on satellite channels. Visit the PI website for specific channels and other details.