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

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…