Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…