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Title: Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes
Author: Charles Seife
Year Published: 2006
Pages: 296

It all started as a way to increase profit. Computers, the internet, even a scientific revolution. In the 1940s, AT&T, the king of telephones at the time, wanted to know how many telephone conversations they could cram onto the same line at the same time. On the surface it appears to be a straight forward question. It proved anything but. Several engineers had tried unsuccessfully to answer the question.

If the question had been how many cars can cross the same bridge at the same time, the answer would have been easy. You weigh the cars and determine how much weight the bridge can hold. But a telephone conversation is information. Scientists at the time had no way of measuring information.

One of the central tenets of information theory is that information is not just an abstract concept but that information is physical—“information is as real and concrete as mass, energy, or temperature” (9). You measure the length and width of a car in inches. You measure its weight in pounds. Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, discovered that you measure information in bits—1s and 0s.

Shannon was a researcher at Bell Laboratories working on the problem of how many conversations can fit on the same line for AT&T. The term bit is part of our vernacular in the “information age,” but it first appeared in Shannon’s 1948 paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Information theory, the theory Shannon developed to determine how many conversations can fit on one line, was “the third great revolution in physics in the twentieth century” after relativity and quantum mechanics (59). In fact, both relativity and quantum mechanics can be described in terms of information.

If you want to learn more about this scientific revolution, Decoding the Universe is a great introduction. As the unwieldy subtitle suggests, information theory is changing the way scientists think about everything from our brains to black holes. Charles Seife writes in an engaging style that clearly explains scientific principles for a general audience. As the best popular science writers do, he doesn’t just teach ideas—he tells the history of those ideas. His account is peppered with anecdotes and stories. Although there is an extensive ten-page bibliography at the back of the book, Seife doesn’t use footnotes to cite any of his sources as he goes along. Unlike the publishing industry, I don’t think footnotes would have scared off the non-technical reader.

After a short background on information theory and a brief, one chapter detour on how information theory is changing the life sciences—how we understand DNA and the brain—Seife explores the first two great revolutions in physics in the twentieth century—relativity and quantum mechanics. If information is physical and not abstract, it must obey the physical laws of the universe. Einstein’s theory of relativity set a universal speed limit—the speed of light. Information cannot travel faster than the speed of light. It cannot get from place to place instantly.

Up till now a bit can be either a 0 or a 1. Quantum mechanics introduced the concept of a qubit, a quantum bit that can be a 0, 1, or both 0 and 1 at the same time. One of the great mysteries of physics is how the rules that govern very large objects (relativity) and the rules that govern very small objects (quantum mechanics) can be so different and contradictory. Why can an atom be in two places at once (superposition) while a baseball cannot? How can two atoms separated by millions of lightyears be entangled (what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”) when doing so seemingly causes the two atoms to exchange information at speeds many times faster than the speed of light? Scientists hope the answers to these questions lie somewhere in information theory. Maybe in a couple decades Seife will be able to write a sequel titled The Universe Decoded. (Though when we answer one question, it usually introduces ten new unanswered questions.)

Although we don’t know what the future holds, God does. Seife explains that “everything in the universe is shaped by the information it contains” (2). Everything—from humans to stars—contains information. In Genesis, God spoke the universe into existence. The creative act itself communicated information. It’s been said that God is a mathematician. According to mathematician Gregory Chaitin, God is a programmer. Seife describes the universe as a giant computer. Maybe God is the divine programmer.