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Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos Hardcover – March 14, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Lloyd, a professor at MIT, works in the vanguard of research in quantum computing: using the quantum mechanical properties of atoms as a computer. He contends that the universe itself is one big quantum computer producing what we see around us, and ourselves, as it runs a cosmic program. According to Lloyd, once we understand the laws of physics completely, we will be able to use small-scale quantum computing to understand the universe completely as well. In his scenario, the universe is processing information. The second law of thermodynamics (disorder increases) is all about information, and Lloyd spends much of the book explaining how quantum processes convey information. The creation of the universe itself involved information processing: random fluctuations in the quantum foam, like a random number generator in a computer program, produced higher-density areas, then matter, stars, galaxies and life. Lloyd's hypothesis bears important implications for the red-hot evolution–versus–intelligent design debate, since he argues that divine intervention isn't necessary to produce complexity and life. Unfortunately, he rushes through what should be the climax of his argument. Nevertheless, Lloyd throws out many fascinating ideas. (For another take on information theory, see Decoding the Universe on p.53.) 12 b&w illus.
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Lloyd's specialty in physics is the hot topic of quantum information. And his book may do for quantum information what Brian Greene did for strings (The Elegant Universe, 1999) and Stephen Hawking did for spacetime (A Brief History of Time, 1988): popularize a far-out scientific frontier. Will Lloyd's listeners have the same head-scratching reactions as his MIT students do on their first encounter with the idea that information is a quantifiable physical value, as much as mass or motion? Or with the proposition that any physical system--a river, you, the universe--is a quantum mechanical computer? Not if they've read his book, which offers brilliantly clarifying explanations of the "bit," the smallest unit of information; how bits change their state; and how changes-of-state can be registered on atoms via quantum-mechanical qualities such as "spin" and "superposition." Putting readers in the know about quantum computation, Lloyd then informs them that it may well be the answer to physicists' search for a unified theory of everything. Exploring big questions in accessible, comprehensive fashion, Lloyd's work is of vital importance to the general-science audience. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (March 14, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400040922
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400040926
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.9 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #810,428 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

167 of 199 people found the following review helpful By Ramesh Gopal VINE VOICE on September 15, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Great ideas lead to short papers in peer-reviewed journals. Often, the more prestigious the journal (Science, Nature), the shorter is the paper because of space constraints. Not so good ideas, on the other hand, lead to rambling books. The author is well published and certainly knows this. The premise here is that the universe is a quantum computer. Okay. What is it computing? Seth Lloyd asserts that it is computing itself. From here on the argument becomes circular. The universe is what it is because it is doing what it is doing. Computation is defined in a general way as essentially any kind of atomic change in state. Therefore, interactions (between particles) become synonymous with computation. The problem here is that when you equate something that clearly exists (the universe) with something which in fact really does not (a quantum computer is hypothetical, you cannot go out and buy one) you define the latter in terms most favorable to yourself. So, since an atom flipping states is equivalent to flipping bits, the physical world performs computation. Since the physical world follows quantum laws, it must be a quantum computer. At some point the whole thing becomes an issue of semantics.

The section on quantum computing could have been interesting. That quantum computers would potentially be very powerful we know. That they can simultaneously work on multiple questions is also clear enough. That so far they have done no more than factor the number 15 we might infer from the absence of any publicity. Lloyd points out that they should be able to factor a 400 digit number with ease. While I understand that they would do this by working on multiple problems simultaneously, what I am curious to know is how we would extract the desired answer (i.e.
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65 of 78 people found the following review helpful By Chris Crawford on October 9, 2009
Format: Paperback
I've always admired the notion (first promulgated by Voltaire?) that the true measure of intelligence is the ability to simultaneously comprehend two mutually contradictory ideas. So I tend to take a mellow approach to ideas that I disagree with. However, this book angered me, not because of its ideas, but because of its serious flaws.

The first serious flaw is that the author cannot keep his ego from seeping into the text. He regales us with triumphant tales of how he confounded his students with deep questions and then nobly revealed the true answers. Sheesh, man, why use the dialog approach using weaklings as your interlocutors? Pit yourself against somebody who can do more than behave as your straight man. Argue with yourself, if you have to! But presenting yourself as the all-knowing professor rubbed my fur the wrong way.

The problem of author vanity permeates the entire book. At no point does the author admit to uncertainty, or present two sides of a case, or even admit that anything he writes is controversial. One gets the strong impression that everything is crystal clear to this author. That impression raises my hackles.

The overwhelming self-assurance of the author explodes in his face when he gets it wrong. In the section "Exorcising Maxwell's Demon" in Chapter 4, he writes:

"The full exorcism of the demon was not accomplished until recently. (I played some part in this ceremony myself.)"

Perhaps Mr. Lloyd is older than I imagine. The exorcism of Maxwell's Demon was accomplished by Leon Brilloun, the physicist who patented the atomic bomb, in a paper published in 1951. Mr. Brilloun does not mention any contribution by Mr. Lloyd. It would appear that Mr. Lloyd is unaware of Mr. Brilloun's paper.
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82 of 106 people found the following review helpful By Roy E. Perry on April 2, 2006
Format: Hardcover
In Programming the Universe, Seth Lloyd, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and the designer of the first feasible quantum computer, presents an arresting new paradigm of the cosmos: The universe itself is a giant quantum computer.

Lloyd's hypothesis is that all physical systems register and process information. Life, language, human beings, society, culture--all owe their existence to the intrinsic ability of matter and energy to process information. When systems evolve dynamically in time, asserts Lloyd, they transform and process that information.

"The goal of this book," the author writes, "is to reveal the fundamental role that information plays in the universe. . . . By understanding how the universe computes, we can understand why it is complex."

A critic for Publishers Weekly writes, "[Lloyd's] hypothesis bears important implications for the red-hot evolution-versus-intelligent design debate." It comes as no great surprise that Lloyd, a scientist, comes down on the side of evolution.

"The conventional picture of the universe in terms of physics," writes Lloyd, "is based on the paradigm of the universe of a machine. Contemporary physics is based on the mechanistic paradigm, in which the world is analyzed in terms of its underlying mechanisms; in fact, the mechanistic paradigm is the basis for all of modern science. . . . The primary quantity of interest in the mechanistic paradigm is energy."

In his famous equation, E=mc2, Albert Einstein asserted the fundamental equivalence of matter and energy. But the universe, Lloyd asserts, is more than matter/energy: "This book advocates a new paradigm, an extension of the powerful mechanistic paradigm.
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