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.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…