Review: Decoding Reality/ Prof Vlatko Vedral (out Feb 25 2010) OUP £16.99
By Martin Hickes
REALITY AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE
In the current vogue for ‘Big Picture’ explanations in the smarter corners of bookstores, either real or virtual, the occasional goldfish in the murky pool arises.
This is thankfully so with Decoding Reality, (OUP £16.99) Prof Vlatko Vedral’s major new literary big toe in the oceanic milieu of otherwise cosmic near-incomprehensibility.
Vedral, erstwhile of the University of Leeds and now at Oxford, ponders that the nature of reality might be even more complex than anyone has ever considered before, with the exotic property of quantum ‘information; lying at its heart. And it’s spectacular stuff even for the lay reader.
Prof Vedral suggests while light, gravity, and the ‘classical’ understandings of Einstein and Newton, as well as the ‘random’ world of quantum physics continue to be the twin theoretical headlights shining into void, ‘quantum information’ might be science’s new ‘high beam’.
Taking a leaf out of the book of the brilliant Italian journalist Italo Calvino, he suggests the secrets of the ‘information’-grounded universe have been effectively unfolding since the Big Bang in the same discreet fashion in which a dealer deals cards which have initially no meaning to the recipients around the table. The secrets of the infinite, it seems are all a question of interpretation.
“’Information may seem a mundane word – bringing to mind rows of numbers, vast databases etc – but information is the most profound concept in modern science. The Universe and everything in it can be understood in terms of ‘information.’
“I’m trying to present the most up to date scientific picture of our universe, and grapple with the notion of what fundamentally defines our reality. As strange as it may sound, I’m trying to impress….that it is quantum information rather than energy or matter or anything else you can think of, that is the most fundamental entity in the universe.
Prof Vedral speaks of the possible use of teleportation in the future, and the use of quantum cryptography, already in use today, which might appeal to those of a Dan Brown mind-set.
He says: “The most profound question humans can ask and facing science today is the nature of reality. Why is there ‘anything’ out there in the first place – surely ‘nothing’ would be the simplest state to have? Quantum physics and information theory hold the answer I believe.
‘As a child I remember feeling a little lost by rules I was required to learn verbatim and just imagined them to be a magician’s trick, something my teacher pulled out of the hat.
‘Further along in life, these tricks don’t seem so intimidating…[and then later] we are in a position to speculate…whether there is a master book of magic which governs them all.
‘Whatever walk of life you come from, the question remains the same – is the reality we see around us made up from a seemingly random collection of rules and events or is there a common underlying thread?
‘Postulating a supernatural being does not really help explain reality since we only displace the question of the origins of reality to explaining the origins of the supernatural being.
‘If you think scientists might have vastly more insightful understanding of the universe compared to that of major religions, then you’d better think again.
‘From the point of view explaining why there is a reality and where it ultimately comes from, being religious or not makes absolutely no difference – we all end up with the same tricky question.’
The book’s startling epilogue is an absolute must read with profound implications for our existence and perceptions of reality.
Certainly Decoding Reality stands alongside The Void, the stable mate from fellow Oxford physics luminary Prof Frank Close.
In a new information age, whether scientific popularists are the prestidigitators of today, or the new alchemists of our pseudo understanding, perhaps remains open to question.
As with most things, in the end, is seems, all will be revealed.
Too much information? Not in this case.