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                   July 2006 Book Review and Quotes Archive

                              

 

                                            Programming the Universe

                                                                           By Seth Lloyd

                                                                             Knopf 2006

                                                                    ISBN: 1-4000-4092-2

                                                                   Review by John Parker

 

As if quantum theory wasn’t enough to stretch the limits of comprehension, now information theory is

emerging and stretching those limits even further.  Black holes acting as incredibly accurate quantum

computers?  That’s just a start.  How about the universe itself being a computer?  This is the intriguing

assertion of Seth Lloyd in his new book, Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist

Takes On the Cosmos.  “The Universe is a quantum computer.  …What does the universe compute? 

It computes itself.  The universe computes its own behavior.  As soon as the universe began, it began

computing.”[i]

 

The idea, in various forms, has been around for awhile.  Ed Fredkin has been developing the idea

since the 60’s.  Though his website[ii] is a bit technical for the average reader, a superb article by

Robert Wright in The Atlantic Monthly captures both the essential ideas and the man himself.

 

According to his theory of digital physics, information is more fundamental than matter and energy.

He believes that atoms, electrons, and quarks consist ultimately of bits--binary units of information,

like those that are the currency of computation in a personal computer or a pocket calculator. And

he believes that the behavior of those bits, and thus of the entire universe, is governed by a single

programming rule.  This rule, Fredkin says, is something fairly simple, something vastly less arcane

than the mathematical constructs that conventional physicists use to explain the dynamics of physical

reality. Yet through ceaseless repetition—by tirelessly taking information it has just transformed and

transforming it further —it has generated pervasive complexity. Fredkin calls this rule, with discernible

reverence, "the cause and prime mover of everything." [iii]

 

This “prime mover of everything” is a class of computer programs known as cellular automata which

were invented by John von Neumann in the 1950s.  More recently Stephen Wolfram has explored

cellular automata in great detail in his monumental work, A New Kind of Science, in which he sees

this form of analysis and understanding as ushering in a new method of doing science.  The cellular

automaton is a lattice of cells, which can have a finite number of states.  These states result from rules

which advance in discrete steps and which simultaneously update the lattice.  Wolfram explored

hundreds of these rules through computer analysis.

 

So the universe could itself be a process of working out these computational processes according to

some rule.  And if so, then our picture of the nature of reality changes dramatically:

 

Fredkin believes that automata will more faithfully mirror reality as they are applied to its more

fundamental levels and the rules needed to model the motion of molecules, atoms, electrons, and

quarks are uncovered.  And he believes that at the most fundamental level (whatever that turns out

to be) the automaton will describe the physical world with perfect precision, because at that level

the universe is a cellular automaton, in three dimensions--a crystalline lattice of interacting logic

units, each one "deciding" zillions of times per second whether it will be off or on at the next point

in time. The information thus produced, Fredkin says, is the fabric of reality, the stuff of which matter

and energy are made. An electron, in Fredkin's universe, is nothing more than a pattern of

information,  and an orbiting electron is nothing more than that pattern moving. [iv]

 

This universe is no longer the continuous process that our perceptual system sees.  Rather it is a

discrete process of events.  The physicist John Wheeler entitled an article on this understanding as

“It from Bit”–a phrase that has become a popular way of encapsulating the idea. 

 

Back to Seth Lloyd.  He is working at this interface of computer science and physics— what Robert

Wright calls the “twilight zone of modern science”.  He surveys the basic principles of quantum

computing, exploring questions such as: How much information is there in the universe? How much

was present at the Big Bang?  Can we re-create it on a giant quantum computer?  How is information

related to entropy?  He answers these questions with surprising clarity for ideas that are so foreign

to our everyday understanding.

 

The strength in Lloyd’s book is the presentation of the core ideas of quantum computing.  Those of a

more philosophical bent might have wished for more speculation on the implications of his model.[v] 

However, he does end his book with a “Personal Note: The Consolation of Information,” in which he

describes the tragic death of his teacher and friend Heinz Pagels.  They were hiking together in the

Colorado mountains when Heinz slipped and fell.  After the rescue efforts, he was left with trying to

make sense of what happened.  He concludes his book with this reflection:

Heinz's body and brain are gone.  The information his cells processed is wrapped up in the Earth's

slow process.  He has lost consciousness, thought, and action.  But we have not entirely lost him. 

While he lived, Heinz programmed his own piece of the universe.  The resulting computation unfolds

in us and around us: the vivid thoughts and outrageous behavior he impressed on us still flourish in

our thoughts and behavior and have their own vivid and outrageous consequences.  Heinz's piece

of the universal computation goes on.[vi]


 

[i] p.3.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] For an excellent essay along these lines, see “God Is the Machine” by Kevin Kelly at http://www.kk.org/writings/

[vi] p. 216.

 

 

                 

                                            July 2006 Weekly Quotes   

 

 

Each of us is “information” manifesting and experiencing a physical reality.

Bruce Lipton, Embracing the Immaterial Universe

 

Energy makes physical systems do things.  Information tells them what to do.   Information is physical. 

Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe

 

What makes us unique is information--the bits of DNA that join us to monkeys, and the habits of language

and thought that separate us from them.  There is no separate substance, no vis vitae or vital force, that

makes us living, breathing human beings.  We are made of atoms, like everything else.  It is the way that

those atoms process information and compute in concert that makes us what we are.  We are clay, but we

are computational clay.           

Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe

 

It is the richness and complexity of our shared information processing that has brought us this far.

Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe


 

                                                                                 

                                     

 

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