Skip to main content

Computing with Quantum Cats – John Gribbin ****

A new John Gribbin book is always a delight, and he is at his best when exploring the bizarre possibilities of quantum theory. If you aren’t familiar with his previous books on the subject, the title here might be worrying as it suggests some fiendish bio-electronic device where collections of unwilling cats are wired into a computer, but in fact it’s a follow on from earlier titles In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat and Schrödinger’s Kittens, where the relevance of the cats to the topic has become increasingly strained.
What we have here is an introduction to the wonderful world of quantum computers. Usefully, Gribbin leads us in through conventional computing, with workmanlike short biographies of Turing and von Neumann to help make the route to understanding what is going on in devices we use every day, but of which we have little comprehension, much clearer. It’s good to have a computing history that fully takes into account the British contribution, often sidelined by US work, in part because of the way Churchill unfortunately insisted that most of the UK wartime work be destroyed.
The second section of the book takes us into quantum theory, using Richard Feynman and John Bell as the key biographies, while the third concentrates on quantum computing, leading on the perhaps rather less obviously central character of David Deutsch and taking us through some of the many mechanisms for building a quantum computer that are currently being worked on.
Overall this works very well, and we get a powerful insight into the capabilities of this remarkable technology and the huge challenges that are faced in making it work reliably. To get any idea of how quantum computers work it is necessary to give a good background in quantum theory itself, and this is something that Gribbin can do with one hand tied behind his back. It is indicative of the strange nature of quantum theory that when writing on the subject, I take a very different line on some aspects – notably the many worlds interpretation – and yet both views are currently unassailable. You might even say superposed.
If I have any criticism it is that some areas are brushed over just a little too lightly – this isn’t the book to really get a total low-down on quantum physics as it isn’t its central topic. This means that there are a few places were Gribbin effectively says ‘this happens, but you don’t need to understand it.’ The only specific topic I do think could have been handled better is the very important concept of decoherence, which (unless I missed it) is introduced without ever explaining what it means. Certainly in the first reference to it in the index it is used as if it is obvious what it’s about. Yet in reality it is a subtle concept that is hugely important to the quantum computing business. I really wish there had been a few pages putting this straight.
Overall, without doubt the best book I’ve read to provide the general reader with an introduction to quantum computers, and given their potential importance in the future, that has to make it a brilliant addition to any popular science enthusiast’s shelf.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Make, Think, Imagine - John Browne ***

When you read a politician's memoirs you know that, nine times out of ten, it won't really quite work, because the message can't carry a whole book. It's reminiscent of the old literary agent's cry of 'Is it a book, or is it an article?' It's not that there aren't a lot of words in such tomes. It's almost obligatory for these books to be quite chunky. But it's a fair amount of work getting through them, and you don't feel entirely satisfied afterwards. Unfortunately, that's rather how John Browne (former head of oil giant BP)'s book comes across.

It's not that the central thread is unimportant. It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, that science, with its roots in philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge, was considered far loftier than engineering, growing out of mechanical work and the pursuit of profit. There is, perhaps, still a whiff of this around in some circles - so Browne's message that engineering has been…

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…