Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Decoding Reality – Vlatko Vedral ****

This is a class of popular science book that has a lot going for it, but carries a lot of risks. It’s written by a practising scientist, rather than a professional writer – which can mean anything from awful writing to real cutting edge thrills.
If I’m honest, Vlatko Vedral’s writing style is a touch amateurish – but this doesn’t really matter because it’s more than countered by his enthusiasm, which shines through, and his earnest honesty about the scientific method and his subject. This is a fascinating one – the significance of information in the universe. Vedral ties together information, entropy, the nature of the universe, quantum theory and more in a fascinating yet rarely heavy tour of the topic. We get a combination of an explanation of basic information theory with an expansion of this to describe what could be the underlying mechanism of everything. This gets particularly interesting when we get taken into quantum information theory and how it builds on classical theory to make a more wide-reaching whole.
This is all excellent stuff, but a combination of that writing style and one other thing makes me wish Vedral had taken on a science writer as a co-author. The second thing is a certain carelessness with the facts. When outside the author’s own particular sphere, the book can be quite inaccurate.
A few examples – he tells us George Bernard Shaw was English (which would have him turning in his grave). He makes a very confusing statement about global warming. He suggests that global warming is inherent – that the planet will always heat up because processes are inefficient and will always generate heat, which will warm the planet. But this to have a certain lasting effect assumes the Earth is a closed system, which is patently not true.
When he strays into the stock market, he makes the fundamentally flawed assumption that it is possible to deduce future performance from past data (which if true would mean there would be no panics, no crashes). In telling us about six degrees of separation he gives a figure that assumes there are no mutual acquaintances, which seems more than a little dubious. In fact I’m reminded of the early 20th century physicists who taken in by psychics – they proved too naive outside their own field, and this comes across strongly here.
Two other quick examples – he suggests Archimedes’ book The Sand Reckoner was commissioned by King Gelon, where it’s much more likely Archimedes wrote it independently (merely dedicating it to Gelon) to demonstrate how to extend the limited Greek number system. And he gives an estimate for the size of the universe using a diameter of 15 billion light years, which seems remarkably far off current estimates. Oh, and he sinks into mushy mysticism at the end.
Perhaps the worst failure is that he moans that most people don’t understand information theory when it’s so simple – then fails to explain it in a way that most readers will grasp. For example he tells us that an increase in entropy is the same as an increase in information, but doesn’t really explain this, where it is quite easily put across with simple examples.
This isn’t a bad book – far from it – and that’s why I’ve given it four stars. The subject is very powerful and much of what Vedral has to tell us along the way makes interesting reading, particularly when he sticks to the physics and doesn’t try to extend to the likes of the stock market and social interaction. But it could have been so much better.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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