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Sunday, November 16th, 2008

Time Event
6:18p
Hmmm ...
As I've noted in the past few reviews, due to some business travel and the chaos of the election, I've gotten a bit behind on writing up reviews of the stuff I've read recently. Now, I don't know if it's saying something more about my mind or about this book, but at this remove (less than a full month since I finished reading it), I could recall nothing about it when I pulled it off the top of the "needing to be reviewed" stack. Nada ... zip ... bupkis. Of course, when I started flipping through it, the illustrations brought the general themes back to mind, but somehow this didn't make much of an impression!

Maybe that's because Charles Seife's Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes (long enough title for ya?) covers a whole lot of familiar ground, made only different by the "hook" of it coming from at least a purported "Information Theory" perspective. The book starts strongly enough, with a fascinating look at the development of "information", from the earliest simple ciphers and hidden messages, to the development of more complex ways of cloaking information (and key historical events that either succeeded or failed based on the quality of the material), on up through the computer age. It then looks at classical physics and how energy can be broken down to "binary information" and thus the entire universe. The author then relates this to the development of life, and how this can be reduced to increasingly complex information being encoded into DNA, etc.

Now, all this very interesting stuff does take up nearly the first half of the book, but it sort of went off track (for me, at least) at that point, and started rounding up the "usual suspects" for popular physics books, the wave/particle duality of light, various variations on Einstein's thought experiments relating to relativity, and off to Schrödinger's much-abused cat. This all seemed (to me, at least) to be re-hashing stuff that anybody reading this book would already be quite familiar with without adding much in the re-telling. I make this statement with the awareness that I, perhaps, was not picking up on the subtle differences he was positing, as this "physics lesson" did end up in the zone of "Quantum Information" and the theoretical efforts to envision a "Quantum Computer", on much of which I, admittedly, was rather conceptually unclear.

Anyway, this led off into situations where he was making statements like "Information Can BE Neither Created Nor Destroyed" which in turn, ran off into Cosmology, specifically centering on what happens to information in the immediate neighborhood of a Black Hole which he suggests becomes a "separate universe" on the other side of the Event Horizon, leading then to assorted approaches to Metaverse theory (and all that stuff that lies outside of our "Hubble Bubble"), some form of the "Holographic Paradigm", and ties this all back into a version of the Copenhagen Interpretation of multiple realities.

If the universe is infinite, our Hubble bubble, which is finite in extent, is just one of many, many, many nonoverlapping Hubble-bubble-sized spheres you could draw in the universe: the universe can have a huge number of independent Hubble bubbles. Indeed, since our Hubble bubble is finite, in an infinite universe, you could fit an infinite number of these independent Hubble bubbles in the universe. Now the information theoretic catch: each of those spheres has a finite surface area, so each has a finite information content, a finite number of quantum states, and a finite number of ways that matter and energy can be arranged within each Hubble bubble. There are only a finite number of wave functions that stuff inside each Hubble bubble can have.
Anyway, this leads him to point out that we, our world, everything about us, everything about everything in our "universe" is still limited and if that limited sphere (the "surface area" thing plays back to the Black Holes, by the way) exists in an infinite universe, there will be other universes out there with identical sets of waveforms ...

There are a million copies of Hubble bubbles that are identical down to the position and color of every lightbulb in Piccadilly Circus, the velocity of every fish in the sea, and the contents of every single book that exists on Earth.
... and it's not just us ... every possible permutation of how things might be (that are not prevented by the laws of physics operating in that particular type of Hubble bubble) will have a million identical copies!

Unfortunately, the same sorts of math lead off to a sad end of everything, not so much a heat death, but an information death. We appear poised at the mid-point in our universe which has performed 10120 "information-processing operations" since the Big Bang and has about another 10120 operations left in it. Then "poof" ... dark, cold, and uselessly dissipated information.

I think it's telling that Seife is a journalism professor (although having an MS in probability theory and artificial intelligence from Yale), as I don't think a physicist "would go there" on a lot of this! Decoding the Universe is a recent publication (2006), and is available in both hardcover and paperback ... however, you might want to check out the new/used vendors who have "good" "ex-library" copies for just over a buck if you're tempted to jump into this particular mental maelstrom!


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