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A Shortcut Through Time: The Path to the Quantum Computer [Hardcover]

George Johnson
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)


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Book Description

February 18, 2003 0375411933 978-0375411939 Second Edition
The first book to prepare us for the next big—perhaps the biggest—breakthrough in the short history of the cyberworld: the development of the quantum computer.

The newest Pentium chip driving personal computers packs 40 million electronic switches onto a piece of silicon the size of a thumbnail. It is dramatically smaller and more powerful than anything that has come before it. If this incredible shrinking act continues, the logical culmination is a computer in which each switch is composed of a single atom. And at that point the miraculous—the actualization of quantum mechanics—becomes real. If atoms can be harnessed, society will be transformed: problems that could take forever to be solved on the supercomputers available today would be dispatched with ease. Quantum computing promises nothing less astonishing than a shortcut through time.

In this book, the award-winning New York Times science writer George Johnson first takes us back to the original idea of a computer—almost simple enough to be made of Tinkertoys—and then leads us through increasing levels of complexity to the soul of this remarkable new machine. He shows us how, in laboratories around the world, the revolution has already begun.

Writing with a brilliant clarity, Johnson makes sophisticated material on (and even beyond) the frontiers of science both graspable and utterly fascinating, affording us a front-row seat at one of the most galvanizing scientific dramas of the new century.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Johnson has been nominated for several awards for earlier books on physics and physicists (Strange Beauty; Fire in the Mind). Here he sticks mainly to science, providing a quick overview of a cutting-edge union between quantum theory and computing. The book begins by describing a computer as "just a box with a bunch of switches." Although today's computer switches are imbedded in circuitry, they can in principle be made of any material, like the early banks of vacuum tubes; Johnson also recalls a tic-tac-toe-playing machine created from Tinkertoys in the 1970s. An ordinary computer switch, binary in nature, registers as either a zero or a one, but if a single atom were harnessed as a switch, its dual nature as both particle and wave means it could be "superpositioned," simultaneously zero and one. A series of such switches could handle complex calculations much more swiftly than conventional computers: an entertaining theory, but impractical. Except that a quantum computer's ability to factor large numbers-determining the smaller numbers by which they are divisible-would have a critical application in cryptography, with a string of atoms used to create (or break) complex codes. After discussing competing projects that aim to make the theory of quantum computing a reality, the book concludes with ruminations on the implications of the projects' possible success. Using "a series of increasingly better cartoons" and plain language, Johnson's slim volume is so straightforward that readers without a technical background will have no problem following his chain of thought. Illus.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

It's hard to imagine how the newest Pentium chip could pack 40 million electronic switches into a nickel-sized bit of silicon and even harder to imagine what that means for computing. A recipient of the Science Journalism Award, Johnson should make it all clear.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; Second Edition edition (February 18, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375411933
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375411939
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,175,224 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
48 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Quantum Leap for Computing March 2, 2003
Format:Hardcover
Your computer will soon be out of date. You know that already, especially if you know about Moore's law, which was originated forty years ago, and says that every year and a half, the density of components on a computer chip will double. From the room-sized vacuum tube monsters down to the sprightly laptop, there has been a continued decrease in size and increase in speed. But silicon technology cannot reduce forever; it is still based on atoms, and it cannot get smaller than an atom. There is no law, however, that says we must forever be dependent on silicon, and so entirely new technologies may be developed. The technology, undeveloped but promising, which has interested physicists and computer scientists the most is quantum computing. We don't have quantum computers yet, and they aren't a sure thing, but the possibilities are tantalizing. George Johnson, a science journalist, has tried to make the new technology plain in _A Shortcut Through Time: The Path to the Quantum Computer_ (Knopf), and for those of us who aren't mathematicians, physicists, or computer scientists, he has done an admirable job at making a very strange, not-yet-practical technology understandable. Few of us need to know how silicon chips work, and fewer still will ever understand how quantum computers will work. Indeed, the quantum world is so vastly strange and counterintuitive that no one really can understand it. But Johnson's book is a good introduction to the strangeness, and a good vantage point from which to watch the upcoming revolution, if it comes.
Johnson's book is about a real quantum leap. The classical physics of our silicon computers does not hold within the tiny spaces inside atoms.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read about an exciting possibility August 26, 2003
Format:Hardcover
One of science writer George Johnson's aims in this book is to explain to a general readership how quantum computers might work. The key word is "might." As it stands now there are no quantum computers at work; and, although there is apparently no theoretically reason they won't be developed in the future, there are a host of practical problems to be solved that suggest they may never be developed.

Johnson acknowledges as much when he quotes French physicists Serge Haroche and Jean-Michel Raimond as saying that the small scale "hands-on experiments" with a few qubits that are currently being done "are more likely to teach us about the processes that would ultimately make the undertaking fail" than to teach "us how to build a large quantum computer." (p. 169)

As I understand it, basically the idea behind quantum compters is that (somehow) individual quanta (atoms, photons, electrons) are able to be in a particular state or not to be in a particular state; that is, either the equivalent of yes or no, but also in an indeterminate state; that is, a state that would signal yes and no at the same time! Somehow (and I hope I am forgiven for not fully appreciating this)--somehow because of this fabled indeterminancy, quanta can be used to compute at a speed that is more than exponentially faster than digital computers.

Johnson spends some series ink in trying to show how the atoms can hold and crunch numbers as long as they are not disturbed; that is, not measured in any way (which would bring about the famous "collapse of the wave function"). In this manner a problem that would take a digital computer weeks or months to solve could be solved in a fraction of a second.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Recommended. February 28, 2003
Format:Hardcover
Intelligence, good sense of humor, and a spacious mind makes this book fascinating and makes very difficult materiel available to non-scientist and scientist alike. George Johnson is a rare soul who understands the materiel well enough to riff on it, build and play with the science, and yet speak in metaphors that work for me, someone who lives thoroughly in my right brain. His personal history with the subject matter, from his early days as a curious kid on through, help us take the steps with him to understand an incredibly complex field. The writing stays transparent, not opaque, interesting all the way through the technical nuts and bolts, but the concepts are far from mechanical and have left me contemplating long after.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quick, direct introduction to quantum computing August 4, 2003
Format:Hardcover
This book was very useful in introducing me to the mechanics of quantum computing. Using simplified concepts and compartmentalized explanations, the book manages to explain the core concepts of quantum parallelized computing using tinkertoys, gears, and black-box algorithms.
I've had some previous introduction to quantum theory, but the limited depth provided by this book is exactly what I needed to base further exploratory reading on. It's a perfect "first" stepping stone for anyone interesting in exploring the field, either at depth or at leisure.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hoping for more... January 2, 2006
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Even though Richard Feynman once quipped, "...nobody understands quantum mechanics," I was still hoping to come away with a better understanding of quantum computing than Johnson provides. The author spends too much time covering the general principles of computing and not enough time on quantum computing. Specifically, he beats the reader over the head with the rather clear concept of the Turing machine. He forays into the tinkertoy computer -- an interesting historical curiosity, to be sure -- but does not make clear how the tinkertoy computer relates to quantum computing, other than that it is an example of a Turing machine, and does not even explain the tinkertoy machine well enough to get a clear idea of its functioning. Much the same is true for the simple Geniac switch, love of his childhood, which occupies an unseemly number of pages. At the same time, quantum computing is not covered precisely enough for the reader to digest and express the gist of it.

What is interesting to the computer programmer is a) how the program is loaded, b) how processing is accomplished, and c) how the output is read. We can set an initial state by shining a laser on a bunch of particles (Johnson pretty much leaves it at that). The problem here is that setting the initial state of a program is not the same as loading the program itself, in other words, somewhere there must be a distinction between loading code and loading data, as well as code operating on data. It seemed to me that Johnson skirts the issue by ignoring this distinction and leaving the processing "black-box" to the collapse of probability waves of entangled particles whose initial state was set by a laser.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Introduction
If you want to Know EXACTLY how Quantum Computing works this is probably not for you. If you are looking for how to program a Quantum Computer, or Design one, or Build One -... Read more
Published 1 month ago by D. R. Pitts
5.0 out of 5 stars Recipient loved it
This was given as a gift and from what I've been told the recipient is very pleased with it. Arrived very quickly.
Published 18 months ago by Linda M. Paul
1.0 out of 5 stars Horrible book on quantum computing
This book is written for someone who perhaps hasn't ever even seen a computer. If you've been living under a rock then this book might appeal to you. Read more
Published on June 26, 2012 by Onomojo
4.0 out of 5 stars An introduction to quantum computing for laymen
The author has written a book that is accessible to laymen, and which provides an introduction to quantum computing. Read more
Published on May 4, 2012 by Ulfilas
4.0 out of 5 stars Exceptionally clear and enlightening
Quantum computing is one of those things that is almost impossible to explain to someone who doesn't already have a good understanding of both quantum physics and computational... Read more
Published on August 14, 2011 by Michael J. Edelman
4.0 out of 5 stars Quebits on the Move
This is an interesting though difficult read. The author has no less a task than to explain the working basis for quantum computing, and what, up to now, has been accomplished. Read more
Published on July 25, 2010 by T. Kepler
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Introduction
This book is by George Johnson on quantum computing. It is a very interesting introductory book and not too long on the math if you are not big on that. Read more
Published on December 28, 2009 by C. Richard
5.0 out of 5 stars Dead and Alive: Schrödingers Cat Revealed
George Hohnson's little book, "A Shortcut in Time," reveals the truth of Schrödinger's Cat, which, as a quantum event was both dead and alive-until its state was acutally... Read more
Published on August 10, 2008 by Judy Galvin
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Introduction to Quantum Computing
"A Shortcut Through Time" is a well-written introduction to the complex topic of quantum computing. Quantum computing, in a general sense, is the utilization of various quantum... Read more
Published on November 5, 2007 by K. Scott Proctor
4.0 out of 5 stars simple metaphors
Johnson tackles a difficult subject. One that is very non-intuitive to a reader unversed in physics. Yet in simple but clear metaphors, he seems to succeed. Read more
Published on January 18, 2006 by W Boudville
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