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the Complete Review
the complete review - science / philosophy

Decoding Reality

Vlatko Vedral

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To purchase Decoding Reality

Title: Decoding Reality
Author: Vlatko Vedral
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 218 pages
Availability: Decoding Reality - US
Decoding Reality - UK
Decoding Reality - Canada
  • The universe as quantum information

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Our Assessment:

B : approachable presentation of an interesting idea

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 22/4/2010 .
Financial Times . 12/4/2010 Alan Cane
The Guardian . 27/3/2010 Steven Poole
New Scientist B+ 17/3/2010 Seth Lloyd

  From the Reviews:
  • "One quibble: Mr Vedral often digresses from the point at hand, so the overall effect tends to be a bit meandering. Mr Vedralís professional interests lie in quantum computing and quantum information science, which use the laws of quantum mechanics respectively to build powerful computers and render codes unbreakable. There is a lot of discussion of both, which is very welcome because there are not many popular science books that cover these relatively young fields." - The Economist

  • "Vedral writes in an amiable, unaffected style but this is a difficult book for the non-specialist. He has the slightly irritating habit of starting to explain a key point, then wandering off into an anecdote, in the manner of a lecturer diverted by a passing thought. The sense that one is reading an introductory text to a university course is reinforced by a series of "take-home" lessons at the end of each chapter." - Alan Cane, Financial Times

  • "Every age, of course, describes the universe according to its own predominant technological metaphor, and some problems arise here when it seems as if a mathematical description is being taken for a cause (the claim, for instance, that "wealth distribution" in society "is an outcome of simple information theory" looks highly dubious). But the author evinces great enthusiasm and curiosity throughout, and deserves an extra tip of the hat for having cheerfully calculated the informational redundancy of his own book. Lower, I guess, than most." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "By turns irreverent, erudite and funny, Decoding Reality is -- by the standard of books that require their readers to know what a logarithm is -- a ripping good read. (...) In general, the parts of Decoding Reality that deal with quantum physics and quantum information are the least original. (...) More rewarding are the sections in which Vedral leaves the confines of his own discipline to speculate and expound on the role of information in biology, finance and philosophy." - Seth Lloyd, New Scientist

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Decoding Reality Vlatko Vedral argues that everything -- everything ! -- can be thought of as information, and that this ("reality as information") is also a useful way of seeing the world.
       In an approachable (if occasionally too chummy) style Vedral walks the reader through a different kind of information-revolution, with an emphasis on its quantum foundations. The latter, especially, can be counter-intuitive (and otherwise confusing), but Vedral makes his case well and engagingly. (Only the chapter-titles -- 'Information for all Seasons' or 'Quantum Schmuntum: Lights, Camera, Action !' -- and a few asides are really too cleverly-forced.)
       The three-part book is built up in manageable and distinct chapters; at the end of each is a collection of 'Key Points', summing up a half dozen or so of the main points Vedral made in a sentence or two each.
       An initial difficulty Vedral faces is in trying to explain the concept of 'information' itself. In this 'information age' we're used to thinking of specific kinds of information, generally readily expressible in words or numbers, reducible to bytes and bits, but Vedral wants to show that the concept is much larger than that, extending to all aspects of the physical world or indeed any 'reality' itself.
       By the end Vedral has, in fact, come full circle, suggesting:

The Universe can therefore be seen as an information processor, in other words a gigantic quantum computer.
       It's not quite as circuitous a route from here to there as one might expect, as Vedral builds up to it quite well, introducing various building-blocks such as Shannon's information theory, the Second Law of thermodynamics, probability theory, and then various aspects of quantum physics. He's particularly good at explaining quantum computing (and the still-early stages the field is in at the moment), as well as in discussing the possibility of something arising out nothing (which obviously has profound implications in certain world-views (or origin-of-world-views)).
       Vedral notes early on that one difficulty one faces with information:
is that, once defined in a rigorous manner, it is measured in a way that is not easy to convey without mathematics. You may be very surprised to hear that even scientists balk at the thought of yet another equation. As a result, experts and non-experts alike have so far been avoiding popularizing this concept in a detailed and precise way.
       Vedral does his best to counter that, by and large avoiding maths in the book (there are only a few and fairly basic equations, but even they are carefully spelled out) while still conveying the essentials. Some examples work very well in this regard, for example a card game (and variations on it) taken from an Italo Calvino-story. But elsewhere he gets in a bit over his head, as when he tries to explain the Second Law of thermodynamics by trying to tie it together with the current fad for global warming theories, phrasing his explanation in a way that (incorrectly) suggests the earth is a closed system so that all human activity of any sort contributes to 'global warming':
the environment (e.g. our planet) absorbs this dissipated energy, which manifests itself as a rise in temperature. And so whenever any kind of energy is used we have global warming as a necessary consequence of the Second Law.
       While technically true that the 'use' of energy will manifest itself as a rise in temperature, the environment (i.e. (surely not e.g., in this case ...) the planet) is a more complicated -- and, significantly, not closed -- system, and while (slight) local warming can occur because of energy-use, the effect of human activity on actual global warming is considerably more complex (i.e. doesn't have to do so much with moment-by-moment release of energy due to activity and work (by men and machines), but rather cumulative changes to the environment that are largely byproducts of this energy-release (increased CO2; levels, for example, etc.) In addition, given that solar energy is the overwhelming (by several orders of magnitude) energy source that 'warms' the earth, the direct contribution of human activity to 'global warming' (in the loose way Vedral means it here) is completely negligible (except on the very local level: obviously the fire in the fireplace warms up the living room, the factories, traffic, etc. in the urban area increase local temperatures, etc.). Vedral is not literally wrong, but his example and limited explanation is a misleading and fairly pointless one -- and this type of argument (bringing in such a contentious issue as global warming, too ...) detracts from his main points.
       Overall, Vedral makes a good case for seeing 'the universe as quantum information', and he presents the material quite engagingly (though there are a few times when he tries to be too familiarly-engaging ...). He has a fairly agreeable if occasionally rough style; for the most part, however, he gets his points across well.
       Interesting material, quite well presented.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 April 2010

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Decoding Reality: Reviews: Vlatko Vedral: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Vlatko Vedral was born in 1971. He teaches at the universities of Oxford and Singapore.

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