- K. C. Cole, author of The Universe and the Teacup
"An eager, ambitious book. A stimulating, accessible introduction to scientific theory."
- Dallas Morning News
An award-winning journalist surveys the horizon of a new revolution in science
Everything in the universe, from the molecules in our bodies to the heart of a black hole, is made up of bits of information. This is the radical idea at the center of the new physics of information, and it is leading to exciting breakthroughs in a vast range of science, including the invention of a new kind of quantum computer, millions of times faster than any computer today. Acclaimed science writer Tom Siegfried offers a lively introduction to the leading scientists and ideas responsible for this exciting new scientific paradigm.
Information has a precise definition as the state of a system. The simplest bit of information is an either-or state, a zero or one, up or down, yes or no, or a protein either active or inactive (this last connects biology and information). Any system - an atom, a human, the universe - can be completely described by the answers to a few tens of yes-no questions (20 questions, anyone?); that is, a few tens of bits. An information processor, a computer, is a system that transforms its state, according to rules, into a new state. Do not underestimate the import of all this. The thesis developed in the book is that information is not a formal way of analyzing systems and their behavior. "Information is real. Information is physical," Siegfried writes. And later: "Information is more than a metaphor -it is a new reality." And the progression of events through time is computation, so the universe is essentially a huge. If mysterious, computer.
To illustrate, Siegfried begins with the idea of teleportation: "Beam me up, Scotty." If teleportation really exists - and Siegfried shows it does in some sense - it would consist of transporting not matter but the complete information about the structure of an object, every molecule of Captain Kirk, in such a way that the information in the previous location is destroyed. In this view of reality, Siegfried says, "information is the ultimate 'substance' from which all things are made"; witness the light of the recent headlines.
This concept, at most a few decades old in this form, is controversial. Learned opinions vary from complete acceptance to laughing rejection. This book is personal journalism. The author has met with many of the principal movers and shakers. He lets them speak for themselves and recounts his own intellectual journey. He has attended the scientific meetings and read the scientific papers. His primary mentors seem to have been the physicist John Wheeler, a professor of his at the University of Texas, Austin, and the late Rolf Landauer of I.B.M., a primary figure in the physical theory of information (and a deep skeptic about some of the newer directions of exploration).
The book is not about people, however, but about ideas. Once one grants the basic point, the subject areas on which it can be brought to bear are manifold, and Siegfried delves into as many as he can. A superficial whirlwind overview, for purposes of illustrating the range of topics: He begins with quantum computers, which hold the promise, or chimera, of mysteriously enormous increases in computational power, but at the very least the idea forces a careful re-examination of what information is at the quantum level. He moves on to consider biology as a manifestation of information and computation, first at the cellular and subcellular level, and on to the human brain, thought and consciousness. This leads him to consider the role of observers in the universe, and anthropomorphic principles. In the universe of information, an observer - that puzzling interloper in quantum mechanics who affects the state or position of particles simply by observing - is reincarnated as an IGUS (information gathering and using system) that requires a re-examination of what information is in terms of complexity theory, the balancing of regularity and randomness. Then Siegfried takes a dive into black holes, which, in the context of the book, should be thought of as engorgers of information; he then goes on to string theory and beyond. A mighty sweep, but this book will reward a reader who is tantalized by these subjects.
This is not a linear book. If readers come away feeling they understand the full tale, they have not been reading carefully. There are loose ends, probably false ends. There are some meanderings. But that is the state of the subject. This is journalism as evolving history. The book conveys some of the excitement of being in on science in the making, just perhaps a superparadigm shift. As one researcher states about one subject, quantum Information theory. "Five years ago there wasn't such a thing. Now there is, sort of." As Siegfried unfolds his story, it is clear he has himself chewed on the topic and its implications over many years, and has come incrementally to his understanding. He takes the reader with him. There is a lot of information; to get at it, large chunks may require more than one reading. The author includes endnotes and references for further reading; if the book has done its job really well, the reader will follow those leads. . --By James Alexander, The NY Times Book Review