Review of “Decoding the Universe” by Charles Seife

Seife has you from hello: the first line of his book is: “Civilization is doomed.” His witty quotes and epigrams at the start of each chapter such as this limerick from A.H. Reginald Buller help sum up the themes of this book:

“There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light;
She set out one day,
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.”


Would this be possible? Seife provides user-friendly explanations of some of the basic theories of physics, including entropy, light speed, quantum entanglement, complementary particles, uncertainty, decoherence, and black holes, all from the perspective of information theory. Information theory, he claims is “the third great revolution of twentieth-century physics.” The laws of thermodynamics, relativity, and quantum theory, are all actually theories of information, and Seife explains why this is so. He answers the question of whether a tree still falls in the forest if no one is able to hear it (yes, he says) and reviews theories of how “spooky action at a distance” could make sense. He even gives a reasonable rationale for multiple-universe theories, explaining that if “stars and galaxies and creatures are cut off from us by some sort of barrier that blocks information” they will, in essence, be inhabiting a “different” universe. (I.e., the problem lies more in our traditional conception of “universe” than with the physical possibilities.)


His explanations, which often include helpful illustrations, are couched in examples and analogies that will benefit the physics novice, but with the added perspective of information theory it will not be boring to more advanced readers either. He assures us that some of the most improbable paradoxes of physics have now been proven experimentally and can be explained by information theory. He does not impose mathematical equations on readers, although occasionally he states somewhat apologetically that the reader just has to take in on faith that a really big equation makes some statement true, or at least, allows for accurate predictability.

I admit to not understanding everything in the book, but Seife made the effort of trying to do so interesting and enjoyable. I would highly recommend this book for any level of reader.

Published by Viking, 2006


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