Friday, May 6, 2011

Dream Machine

Rivka Galchen is a talented fiction writer and the author of Atmospheric Disturbances, a first novel that won the William Saroyan International Prize in 2010. But she is also a gifted science writer, which is not surprising since some science can read like fiction without being science fiction. In the May 2 New Yorker she writes about quantum computing, which “instead of bits uses qubits” (“Dream Machine,” The New Yorker, 5/2/11). Quantum computing depends on the old 01 binary function, but “a qubit can be zero and one” instead of the classical zero or one. It’s called superposition and Galchen describes how it is comparable to Schrödinger’s cat, who is “dead and alive at the same time.” “Superposition is like Freud’s description of true ambivalence: not feeling unsure, but feeling opposite extremes of conviction at once,” Galchen says in one particularly brilliant display of her ability to navigate between the worlds of interior emotion and natural law. In grammatical terms, qubits are analogous to oxymorons. Read the piece, but don’t try to understand. After all, Galchen says that it’s about ontology more than epistemology. She focuses on the work of an Oxford physicist David Deutsch, who has written books with names like The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity and who, to some, has carried forward the tradition of great computational innovators like Alan Turing. But Hugh Everett’s controversial Many Worlds theory is at the heart of the ontology Galchen is trying to clarify. As Galchen describes it, “Information that seemed to travel faster than the speed of light and along no detectable pathway… can…be understood to move…via the tangencies of abutting universes.”

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