This past year I have been trying to update myself about the fundamental scientific theories of everything. Quarks and entropy. The big bang. Decoherence. Many Worlds. But I’ve yet to get a handle on what a quantum computer is. At my local library, I am in luck. There is a book that promises to make quantum computing “wonderfully accessible” by the very designer of the first feasible quantum computer, Seth Lloyd of the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT. Lloyd calls himself a quantum-mechanical engineer, a man who engineers atoms.
Lloyd’s book, Programming the Universe opens with a 3-page prologue that sets the tone and introduces the subject matter by telling the story of a talk he gave to “the usual collection of physicists, biologists, economists, and mathematicians, with a leavening of Nobel laureates” at the Santa Fe Institute. If you’ve never heard of the Santa Fe Institute it’s the home of the six-shootin’ cowboys of discrete mathematics who famously performed feats of gonzo athleticism while they invented the science of computational complexity for the NSA.
The central idea of Lloyd’s presentation to the computational creme de la crème was that all things are composed of information. Not, all things contain a lot of information, but that they—things—me, you, the universe and everything in it is made of information. Holding in his hand an apple, which he will use to illustrate the major points of his argument, he does something that a whole lot of scientists seem to do somewhere in the course of explaining to lay people how science explains the universe—he invokes the Genesis story of the Bible. The apple, he says, “conveys information about good and evil” He calls it the fruit of knowledge ‘whose mortal taste brought death into the world’ and goes on to elaborate on the myriad bits of information it contains—in its DNA, in the story of Isaac Newton’s insight into gravity, and in the metabolic agents that sustain whoever eats it.
A prankster steals the apple when his back is turned. He gets it back, has a spirited exchange with Marray Gell-Mann, the inventor of quarks, and then… in his words: As I finished the talk and stepped away from the board, someone tackled me from behind… Doyne Farmer was one of the founders of chaos theory—a tall athletic man. He grabbed my arms to make me drop the apple. To break his grasp, I slammed him back against the wall. Pictures of fractals and photos of pueblos fell. But before I could wriggle free, Farmer wrestled me to the ground. We rolled around the floor, overturning chairs…
This, folks, scholarship conducted in the style of MIT. This is an environment leavened with Nobel laureates. This, according to page 217 is research funded by the National Science Foundation, the Army Reaearch Office, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Advanced Research and Development Activity, the Naval Research Office, and the Air Force Office for Scientific Research.
I take note of the book’s subtitle: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos. Hard to tell if this is a book about putting Nature to the test so that she will reveal her secrets, or a manual for how to be at least as smart as God the Father.
I’m daunted by the amount of nonsense I might have to wade through just to figure out what a quantum computer is. Would I be better off to just look it up in Wikipedia?