Review: Programming the Universe A Quantum Computer Scientest Takes On THE COSMOS

October 26, 2006 at 6:37 pm Leave a comment

Once, a long time ago in a class very far away, I wrote a story about two ships in the middle of the ocean. The ships were salvaging a space ark they found that ruptured with a peculiar sound. Over time they began to decipherer the sounds and at the end of the story it turned out the pecks of sounds were in fact random signages not ascribable to an intelligent being. It sounded a lot different (and less sci-fi) when I wrote it. Seth Lloyd in Programming the Universe makes a similar to argument. The universe consists of a series of random squiggles or fluctuations that when coupled with a programmable binary universe allow for complex behaviors and meaningful life to exist even when the impulse behind them might not be intelligent. I remember once reading an interview with Miltos Manetas where he said he didn’t understand what his work was about then, but he does now. I kinda feel a similar way.

Mr. Lloyd has spent generations working on his theory of quantum information and the fruits have been stellar so far. He has helped to develop quantum computers and advance various different theories. He is, so to speak, where the computer revolution is going next, but his book is actually full of a different story. In an era in which technology is linked to how doormouseian it’s creators are (witness a recent Wired article that describes Steve Job’s zen like biker shorts) Mr. Lloyd is remarkably square. He tells tales of being kicked out of British bars by punks in the thatcher era (when any good minded liberal thinker would have been expected to pronounce the devils of yada yada yada etc.) he explains how his fellow physicists didn’t believe him, doubted his claims, and stole apples from him, and he also explains how he humiliated a new york bum in the seventies. He does make Heinz Pagels sound cool though. Like Steven Strogatz, Lloyd makes no pains to make himself sound outside of the academy, if anything his descriptions of sipping champagne at Cambridge while on scholarship sound almost regal, but he also makes it apparent how much friction still exists even in academia. Even when encountering some of the most open minds (from Santa Fe Institute thinkers to Pagels in seventies New York) he consistently encounters people who doubt his claims, what him to work on something more “normal”, and other things. Lloyd in essence spent a few decades wondering through Academia consistently being given a hard time. There is a certain sense that he’s a geek’s geek somehow.

But drama aside, Mr. Lloyd is not proposing a thought experiment, he is not making the claim that we can interpret the universe as a computer, he is making the claim that the universe inherently is a quantum computer. He is making the claim that information theory extends well beyond just computer science and man made knowledge banks, he is in essence saying that information forms the basis of our universe. He makes a good case for this, but ends with speculation ranging from linking Relativity and Quantum Mechanics via quantum computers. But this book certianly doesn’t start out with such grand claims, Seth is good at explaining things (and he has a sense of humor too) so this book builds up from simple studies of entropy and thermodynamics to information to quantum mechanics before ending out a book on quanta sized computers with claims that could very well solve some of physiscs biggest questions. It’s an ambitious project and also one that, more importatnly, comes from someone who practically invented the field. Mr. Lloyd’s book is more than just Academia intrigue and knowledge travelogue, it also a lesson in how to think and not discounting the problems to oczam’s razor that quickly. While many of Seth’s interlockers perfer to explain quantum mechanics in the classical sense, it is his imagination and willingness to see the potential in using information to explain physics that has given his theories so much power and eventually quantum computers the ability to calculate beyond what is possible now. I read one review of this book that mentioned that quantum mechnanics is a lot like a video game, information in a game exists in an unknown state until the viewer gives it form by comprehending it, Mr. Lloyd has shown that any such simple system can be put to greater use than just explaining the world away.

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