Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, From our Brains to Black Holes

  • Charles Seife
Viking: 2006. 288 pp. $24.95 067003441X | ISBN: 0-670-03441-X

Near the end of his new book Decoding the Universe, Charles Seife argues with a straight face that there exists a universe parallel to ours that is populated by a race of superintelligent octopuses. The funny thing is, I believed him.

If Douglas Adams had not already used it, a more appropriate title would have been Life, the Universe and Everything, for that is in fact just what this book is about. Seife tells us that the modern science of ‘information theory’ (I'll explain the quotation marks below) implies that everything in the Universe, including life, is part of a vast cosmic war between the forces of good (information) and evil (entropy), with entropy the predestined winner. To support this disturbing hypothesis, he weaves a wide-angled interdisciplinary narrative with chapters on cryptography, thermodynamics, classical information theory, genetics, relativity, quantum mechanics, quantum information theory and cosmology (puzzlingly, string theory is absent). Each of these topics is a major scientific discipline, and Seife seems to have mastered them all.

Star wars? The battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the Universe is really between information and entropy. Credit: LUCASFILM/20TH CENTURY FOX/KOBAL COLLECTION

Taking centre stage throughout the book is Claude Elwood Shannon (1916–2001). Shannon was a brilliant US mathematician–engineer who worked at Bell Labs and in 1948 invented a set of mathematical tools to solve what he called the fundamental problem of communication: “that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point”. Seife omits any mention of Shannon's most celebrated result, the ‘noisy-channel coding theorem’, emphasizing instead Shannon's notion of entropy, the mathematical measure of information and, paradoxically, disorder. Shannon's initial work was indeed called ‘information theory’, but engineers, mathematicians and physicists today use the term to mean quite different things. I am an information theorist–communication engineer by trade, but Seife's information theory is a branch of physics, and much of the ‘information theory’ he discusses is very far from communication engineering.

The text is filled with interesting and quirky personalities. In the early chapters, we read of two suicides (Ludwig Boltzmann and Alan Turing) and a guillotining (Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier), but then suddenly all the biographical details stop. I would have liked to see a bit more about the human side of celebrated intellectuals such as Einstein, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking and Shannon, but never mind. According to Seife, in the cosmic war between information and entropy, the individual doesn't matter.

The technical and psychological weight of the material is lightened throughout by the author's unfailing sense of humour, and as homework I assign the reader to locate, somewhere in the text: a scatological remark about McDonalds; a gratuitous wisecrack about the animal-rights group PETA; a discussion about the wisdom of using the Starship Enterprise's transporter beam; and a discussion of the difficulty of getting a cat into a bra.

Finally, potential readers should be warned that this is a non-technical book about some very, very technical material. There is only one equation in the text (apart from footnotes and appendices), which makes it accessible to a non-mathematical audience but sometimes forces Seife into intricate verbal gymnastics and paradoxes. Indeed, at times Seife seems to doubt his own material, and the book is rife with unscientific adjectives such as absurd, bizarre, confusing, hairy, horrible, insane, ridiculous, sloppy, spooky and just plain weird. (To be fair, the term ‘spooky’ is bone fide quantum-mechanical technical jargon, as in ‘spooky action at a distance.’) By the last chapter, Seife has begun referring to celestial coin flips, god-like beings and supernatural creatures (there are no atheists in black holes, it seems). Still, it will be a rare reader, professional scientist or not, who fails to be entertained and informed by this well-written grand-daddy of all ghost stories.