Friday, September 29, 2006

If There Ever was a Mother-of-All Theories……..

A review of Decoding the Universe: How the new science of Information is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from our Brains to Black Holes by Charles Seife



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


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