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A Shortcut Through Time: The Path to the Quantum Computer Hardcover – February 18, 2003

ISBN-13: 978-0375411939 ISBN-10: 0375411933 Edition: Second Edition

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; Second Edition edition (February 18, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375411933
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375411939
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #293,048 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

Customer Reviews

It makes you go "Wow, cool!"
E. A. Janne
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.
Heather Roan Robbins
This book was very useful in introducing me to the mechanics of quantum computing.
Richard Soderberg

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

48 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on 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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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Y. Sageev on 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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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 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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