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Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, Fromour Brains to Black Holes [Paperback]

Charles Seife
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (30 Jan 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143038397
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143038399
  • Product Dimensions: 19.7 x 13.4 x 1.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 943,333 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Decoding the Universe Lucid and exhilarating, this volume probes the mind-boggling advances in science that are bringing mankind to the brink of a new understanding of the universe, the mysteries of physics, and the nature of space and time. Full description

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3.0 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but a little annoying 3 Nov 2006
By Dennis Littrell TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Seife begins with an introduction to information theory. He talks about redundancy and the relationship of entropy and probability to information. He recalls the work of Turing and Shannon. Then he reviews relativity as he leads us to quantum mechanics. He recalls the paradox of Schrodinger's cat and other peculiarities of QM.

In general what he tries to explain to the general reader is how science is reinvestigating the fundamentals of physics from the standpoint of information theory, which apparently is going to replace physics. If Seife is correct, professors of physics are going to become professors of information theory, if that hasn't already happened. To me replacing matter and energy with information is not helpful. But to physicists apparently it is not only helpful but something splendid.

Consequently, there is a kind of "gee whiz" quality to Seife's expression, a quality that I found somewhat off-putting. Enthusiasm is fine and the ready acceptance of new ideas is agreeable when the ideas have experimental backing. For example he writes (speaking of a hypothetical creature inside the event horizon of a black hole): "...no matter how hard it tried, the creature would be utterly unable to send us a message...The pull of the black hole is too strong. Even if there were a huge population of these creatures swirling around the black hole, all screaming and signaling as loud as they possibly could, Earth would never receive a single bit or qubit of information about them." (pp. 242-243)

Considering the physical conditions inside a black hole, the image of creatures "screaming and signaling" is absurd to say the least, and frankly ludicrous.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Boring and even incorrect 6 May 2007
Format:Hardcover
The author mistakes clarity for verbosity and in the end I don't know what is he trying to tell us.

The subtitle says that information science can provide a different view of everything. Instead of telling us what is this view, we are forced first to go first through the usual typical topics in popular science: a oversimplified explanation of quantum physics, relativity, what is entropy, etc.

When the time comes to cover the specific topics of the book, quantum computing is explained very fast, and without clarity. Regarding the implications to the "cosmos", the author first adheres to the "decoherence" interpretation of quantum mechanics, and a few chapters later he bases the reasoning in the "multiple worlds" interpretation, which he takes seriously and claims that is "rapidly becoming the favorite of physicists" [sic]. He should be better informed.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
Firstly, aside from the reservations of the previous reviews, I enjoyed reading this, and anyone who wants to start looking into Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and such would find useful information in here. Particularly the spear-runner-and-barn paradox demonstrates the in-depth quality of Relativity and how it is so perverse to our every-day experience. True, the Quantum Information part could have done with a little more explanation, but for me, I found it easy(ish) to follow and a thirst to delve into it more from outside sources.
This was also my first contact with information theory, and it does provide a good framework for understanding it. It begins with simple examples that we would give no consideration to, but analyzing it from the standpoint of information theory gives you a feel of what it means, then onto how it applies in more detailed settings, and then onto bizarre quantum information.
It does introduce a lot of new ideas quite quickly (you need to understand superposition before quantum information, which requires some understanding of quantum physics, so you have to get through a fair bit before you get to the main bit.)
If you enjoyed Seife's other books, you will most likely enjoy this one - but not quite as much
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  43 reviews
51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If there ever was a Mother-of-All Theories.... 26 Sep 2006
By Andrew Jennings - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In reviews thus far of "Decoding the Universe," both formal and informal, there is a pattern of confusion and disorientation about the book's real topic.

Take Laura Miller's review on Salon.com for example. Though it is largely a positive review, she introduces the book as a book on cosmology and compares it, as a few other reviewers have, to Seth Lloyd's book on quantum computing, "Programming the Universe."

Yes it is true, Charles Seife does write about the universe and he does have a chapter on quantum computing, but there is more to the book than multiverses and quantum computing.

In fact, the very reason for this general sense of disorientation may be the real central concept of the book - Information. For most of us, information is, dates, faces, or names of places. It is an abstract concept. Contrast that to the concept of "Information" Seife introduces, a concept that is physical, a concept that is probabilistic and one that governs the behaviors of atoms, black holes and all living beings.

The word "Universe" in the title may have been a bit misleading, conjuring a, somewhere `out there' in a subatomic realm, far far away, image. The universe in Seife's title is not just about the universe out there in the dark sky, it really alludes to a `Universal Law' that applies to all things in our universe. Seife's book is really about an emerging law, that may well become, once all the debates come to an end, the most fundamental law of the universe.

"Information can neither be created nor destroyed."

The book begins with three important figures, Alan Turing the English mathematician who is considered as the father of computer science, Ludwig Boltzmann, who formalized the statistical concept of thermodynamic entropy and engineer Claude Shannon, whose Information theory is the reason we have such mainstays today as the internet and cell phones.

In the first three chapters Seife introduces the works of these three men and the happenstance way in which, the exorcism of a demon (Maxwell's theoretical demon) establishes a fundamental connection between Boltzmann's entropy and Shannon's information. As a result, thermodynamics, the field in physics that describes the behaviors of mass and energy became "a special case of information theory," and along with it, information itself became, according to Seife, a quantifiable and concrete property of mass and energy.

As Seife goes on to tell us, the laws of thermodynamics are not the only ones to be subsumed by the concept of information. Even Einstein's theory of relativity, Seife insists, is really, "a theory about information." Specifically, the theory dictates the maximum speed at which information can be transferred in the universe: speed of light.

He doesn't stop there; he takes us to the subatomic realms where he introduces the information character of quantum behavior. "In fact," he says, "all the absurdity of quantum theory - all the seemingly impossible behaviors of atoms, electrons, and light - has to do with information: how it is stored, how it moves from one place to another, and how it dissipates."

While the book does heavily tend towards physics and cosmology, there is one chapter often overlooked by readers and reviewers, that makes it more than just a book about the `universe as a giant computer.' This is the chapter about the information characteristic of life. Almost half a century ago, even before the discovery of the structure of the DNA, quantum theorist Erwin Schrödinger, realized that life is a, "delicate dance of energy, entropy, and information, " and said as much in his book "What is Life?"

The discovery of the DNA's structure and our subsequent understanding of its information role in living systems have only reaffirmed Schrödinger's intuition about the information character of living systems themselves. Today, as Seife explains, all living beings, ourselves included, are understood as, "incredibly complex information-processing machines, ones capable of tasks that no other such machine is capable of, but information-processing machines nonetheless."

For at least a quarter century now, the information concept has been cropping up in different disciplines and specialists in different fields have been writing about information theory's influence within their fields, whether it is molecular biology or black hole theory. Therefore it is true that many popular science books written by specialists have addressed much of what Seife relates. However, most specialists, though aware of information theory's influence in their own fields of expertise, are often oblivious to the theory's influence in disciplines other than their own. This gives Seife, as a non-specialist a unique vantage point of sorts, and sets his work apart from other books that may have addressed many of these concepts before. Unhindered by the usual blinders of specialization, Seife is able to weave together, what has so far been considered disconnected stories, with one thread - the concept of information. Perhaps the most important thread of all.

It is nothing short of extraordinary that one set of rules (the rules of information), which dictate the behavior of gigantic exotic unseen objects like black holes, and the behavior of our modern computing machines could also dictate how our own minds and bodies function.

Seife's book is the first truly comprehensive treatise on the information concept in all its dimensions. It is an ambitious, necessary, and timely book that is a harbinger of things to come. It is the leading edge of a wave. As the realization of information theory's importance begins to take hold, there will be a deluge of books on this topic. If you want to be ahead of the curve, read this book.

By Andrew Jennings, author "The Invisible Matrix: The Evolution of Altruism, Culture, Human Behavior and the Memory Network"
48 of 58 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Information is physical 7 May 2006
By David J. Kreiter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Charles Seife has not been the first to proclaim that the most fundamental entity in the universe is "information". Physicist John Wheeler, David Bohm, and Tom Siegfried among others have held this view as well, but no other author I've read has gone to such lengths to establish this idea as an undeniable conclusion.

In a consise staight-forward format, Siefe delves into biology, computer science, cosmology, Relativity, and quantum theory, to establish the notion that information and the second law of thermodynamics are intricately linked. And he does this without ever allowing the reader to become lost or confused.

Information is always physical, whether it is marks on paper, holes in a punch card, atoms in an electo-magnetic state on a CD, photon polarization, or up/down spin on an electron. All information has a physical representation. And like any physical thing in our universe, it abides by the laws of nature, including the laws of thermodynamics and Relativity. Information, like energy, can neither be created nor destroyed. Infomation always moves toward the most probable state: maximum entropy. And no information can travel faster than the speed of light.

The qubit, which is the quantum representation of the classical bit, abides by the laws of quantum physics, and despite the weird instantaneous quantum connection between particles in an entangled state demonstrated by Bell's theorem of inequality; the qubit does not violate faster-than-light communication. Oddly, the qubit does violate one tenant of Relativity--that no effect can precede its cause. It seems that the time-asymetrical qubit has no "before" or "after".

Unlike the classical bit wich resides in a binary, either/or state, the qubit can be in a superposition of states: Two states simultaneously. This fact is what makes the possibility of quantum computing so enticing. By nesting probable outcomes in a superposition of states many fewer yes/no questions are needed in algorithms, making quantum computing many orders of magnitude faster than classical computing.

But, far wider implications exist for the quantum qubit. Siefe believes that the qubit's superposition of states solves two contentious vagaries of the Copenhagen Interpretation of reality: What constitutes an observer? And is there a difference between the classical and quantum worlds?

Siefe says that there is no clear-cut demarcation between the subatomic and classical world, and there is no conscious observer required to collapse the wave function. This directly leads to a resolution of the famous Schrodinger's cat paradox. Since the universe at large is constantly involved in probing with light waves, neutrinos, and zero point energy, the universe itself acts as the observer. Large macro objects such as cats undergo decoherence (a collapse of the superposition of states into a classical bit) very rapidly, while a single subatomic particle or photon take a much longer time, being less likely to come into contact with nature's measurements.

Information is so fundamental that Siefe believes Richard Dawkins popular book called "The Selfish Gene", would have been more appropriately titled "Selfish Information". Siefe says that when it comes to biological organisms, information is even more selfish than the gene, and can run contrary to survival of the fittest. He cites several examples of information reproducing itself even though it is detrimental to the organism, and at times, to the entire species. Information will attempt to replicate even at the expense of the proliferation of the organism carrying the information.

This book was very enticing, and left me with some questions. Is it information that is the most basic entity, or is it "meaning" as physicist David Bohm maintains? Is there a difference between information and meaning? Experiments with polarization of light lead me to suspect that there is a difference.

And, finally, is the brain really a classical machine as Siefe says, or is it a quantum machine as Evan Harris Walker maintains? (See my review: "The Physics of Consciousness" on Amazon). Either way, Charles Seife is right on the mark with this work. I give this book 4.5 stars for being an excellent and fun read.

This review by David Kreiter, author of Quantum Reality: A New Philosophical Perspective.
104 of 131 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but a little annoying 3 Nov 2006
By Dennis Littrell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Seife begins with an introduction to information theory. He talks about redundancy and the relationship of entropy and probability to information. He recalls the work of Turing and Shannon. Then he reviews relativity as he leads us to quantum mechanics. He recalls the paradox of Schrodinger's cat and other peculiarities of QM.

In general what he tries to explain to the general reader is how science is reinvestigating the fundamentals of physics from the standpoint of information theory, which apparently is going to replace physics. If Seife is correct, professors of physics are going to become professors of information theory, if that hasn't already happened. To me replacing matter and energy with information is not helpful. But to physicists apparently it is not only helpful but something splendid.

Consequently, there is a kind of "gee whiz" quality to Seife's expression, a quality that I found somewhat off-putting. Enthusiasm is fine and the ready acceptance of new ideas is agreeable when the ideas have experimental backing. For example he writes (speaking of a hypothetical creature inside the event horizon of a black hole): "...no matter how hard it tried, the creature would be utterly unable to send us a message...The pull of the black hole is too strong. Even if there were a huge population of these creatures swirling around the black hole, all screaming and signaling as loud as they possibly could, Earth would never receive a single bit or qubit of information about them." (pp. 242-243)

Considering the physical conditions inside a black hole, the image of creatures "screaming and signaling" is absurd to say the least, and frankly ludicrous.

Also there is this from page 248: "Indeed, most cosmologists think that the universe is infinitely large...that it has no borders--and that it doesn't have a funky shape that curls around on itself, as a handful of scientists have unconvincingly argued. If you take a rocket ship and travel in one direction for years and years and years, you will never come across an uncrossable boundary and you will never revisit the place you set off from."

This is news to me. The universe is infinite? It used to be the case that the one thing that physicists wanted banished from their equations was any notion of infinity! All kinds of absurdities, paradoxes and incomprehensibles would pop up when infinities were allowed. Speaking of which, Seife also champions the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics over the standard Copenhagen interpretation put forward by Bohr and Heisenberg.

Personally, I've always liked the many worlds interpretation because it is so audacious and because it expands the mind so wonderfully. However, if, as Seife seems to imply, most physicists believe in the many worlds interpretation, I must say I am astounded. What is going on? The many worlds interpretation leads to parallel universes! universes that cannot be detected by any means we know of. They actually cannot be part of any real physics since there is no experimental method that allows us to search for or detect parallel universes.

Has physics come to this? Are the postmoderns right? Is physics now no more than a cultural construct that doesn't even care whether its theories are falsifiable or not? Are Newton and Einstein and James Clerk Maxwell rolling over in their graves? To me the "spooky action at a distance," and particles being in the same place at the same time, and the startling fact that an observation of any kind will always disturb a quantum event to an uncertainty, etc., is nowhere near as benumbing as the idea that a new universe is created with every tick of a quantum divergence. I mean I love it, but how can I believe it?

There's also a superficial quality to this book that is hard to get away from. It's as though Seife does not understand such things as entanglement and superposition well enough to explain them to the general reader. However he's not alone in this. Even the best books on QM for the general reader (e.g., The Quantum World: Quantum Physics for Everyone (2004) by Kenneth Ford), have left me feeling dissatisfied. Perhaps it is impossible to convey the reality of quantum mechanics to non-physicists. However, there is no excuse for falling into such an expression as this: "Parallel universes reveal how superposition works, and how distant entangled particles can instantly 'communicate' with each other over vast distances." (p. 242) This is like saying "vampires reveal how blood nourishes cells in the body." You start with a imaginary entity (a parallel universe, a vampire) and you conclude that this entity reveals something. Parallel universes may exist but nobody has seen one yet, and almost by definition nobody ever will, so it is specious to claim they reveal anything.

Here's yet another example of this sort of fuzzy writing to which Seife--a professor of journalism, by the way, and the author of the acclaimed Zero (2000) and Alpha and Omega (2003)--is inexplicable drawn: "The mysteries of quantum mechanics become much less mysterious--once you believe that information creates the structure of space and time." (p. 242) I have no idea how information might create the structure of space and time, and I certainly cannot comprehend how my belief in such a notion might make QM less mysterious. Seife really needs to explain how this might work. No doubt the failing is mine. However, I suspect I'm not alone.

Bottom line: this book is fun to read, but exasperating because of its fuzzy superficiality. The superficiality may be unavoidable, but the fuzziness is not.
30 of 36 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written, but only for the true layperson 30 Mar 2007
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a gentle introduction to a fascinating subject: that information actually has a physical basis in the universe and that information theory (based on the work of Shannon to determine how much information can theoretically be transmitted across phone lines, but carried by Shannon and his successors far, far further)may actually be fundamental in explaining quantum mechanics and indeed our entire universe.

The book starts with basic description of entropy and definitions of information and proceeds to discussions of quantum mechanics, quantum computing, and such interesting topics as whether Black Holes destroy information or not (Hawkings bet they did, but ultimately conceded...as Seife notes, Hawkings may be the only one who actually changed his mind).

Seife is a clear writer and great at creating an argument step-by-step.

However... I was a math major, a physics minor and am a working computer scientist with years of coursework in automata and complexity theory. Though there was new material in this book for me, vast swathes were way too introductory for me. I really didn't need a 20 page description of how bits are the fundamental element of information and strings of bits can encode anything, or for that matter to rehash special relativity or the selfish gene theory. Though it mostly succeeds, this book may be a little too ambitious. It tries to start with first principles for the layman, but spans so many fields (thermodynamics, information theory, quantum mechanics, biology, cosmology, special and general relativity) that providing basic introductions to all of them greatly dilutes the new and interesting material.

I really wish I knew what to read next. From here it appears most things are other popularizations or deeply technical works for specialists in quantum computing. Hopefully somebody will write a "Selfish Gene" or "Elegant Universe" that goes into more detail while remaining popularly accessible for the scientifically trained.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Muddy Thinking, Fuzzy Writing 11 Jan 2009
By Irfan A. Alvi - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Count me with the other reviewers who gave this book 2 stars. I think their criticisms are generally on target, and the book is lacking on pretty much every level.

First of all, the book lacks clarity, with few of the concepts and arguments explained clearly. Part of the problem may be the avoidance of math, as is common in popular science books. However, as I labored to get through the book, my impression grew ever stronger that Seife actually doesn't understand the subject matter well enough himself, so the fuzziness seems to stem mainly from that. It's as though he has learned his science primarily from popular science books, rather than taking the time to learn the material rigorously. This subject evidently needs a serious scientist, not a journalist who happens to be interested in science.

Tied to this, I didn't care for Seife's writing style. As other reviewers noted, his writing has the quality of trying to oversell the ideas, and relies too much on silly metaphors, as though that could somehow substitute for clarity.

The book also largely lacks a necessary philosophical dimension. The concept of energy is quite abstract and underlies all of natural science (energy isn't tangible material "stuff" you can hold in your hand, but is rather more like a general capacity to cause change), and Seife doesn't seem to realize this. But then he goes further and asserts that information, which is even more abstract than energy, is "physical," yet he offers no real discussion of how to interpret that claim. Instead, he just forces the information idea on many areas of science (thermodynamics, quantum theory, biology, cosmology, etc.), as though asserting a bunch of relatively vague connections is a substitute for clear definitions and careful scientific reasoning.

Having said all of this, let me note that I actually do think that the thesis regarding the fundamental role of information is plausible, perhaps even probable -- Seife writes as though he came up with the idea, even though it's by no means original to him. The problem is simply that Seife proves unable to properly explore this thesis, and he certainly fails to adequately make the case for it in this book.

With this book having turned out a bust, despite the thesis being plausible, the question is what to try next. I know of two other popular books on this subject, Information: The New Language of Science by Hans Christian von Baeyer and The Bit and the Pendulum: From Quantum Computing to M Theory-The New Physics of Information by Tom Siegfried, but the reviews for these books raise the concern that they might not be much better than Seife's book. Another book, apparently written at a much higher level and published by Springer Verlag, is Information and Its Role in Nature (The Frontiers Collection) by Juan Roederer, and I think that one looks more promising.

But getting back to Seife's book, I'd recommend skipping it entirely. I found it to be an insult to the reader's intelligence, and a waste of the reader's time. My time has already been wasted, but yours doesn't have to be also ...
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