Tech & Work

How information theory could impact your job

Interested in science? The study of bits is rapidly growing in popularity with many scientists, as Tom Siegfried explains in The Bit and the Pendulum. Read Erik Eckel's review here, and learn how information theory could change the way you work.

You make your living administering, configuring, and troubleshooting an unbelievable number of ones and zeros. In fact, that may be appropriate. Some physicists believe that we, as humans, are nothing but an incredible collection of sophisticated ones and zeros ourselves.

In his book The Bit and the Pendulum: From Quantum Computing to M Theory—The New Physics of Information (Figure A), scientific journalist Tom Siegfried explains quantum computing and why many physicists now believe the universe is nothing but a collection of information bits. He also reveals how a better understanding of computers and information physics can teach us more about the workings of the universe and improve information technology.

Figure A
The Bit and the Pendulum is published by John Wiley & Sons. You can purchase it for less than $13 online.

That’s all fine and well, but what the heck does information physics have to do with you or information technology? Plenty. Essentially, it impacts everything in the universe, including your health, your job, computing, and more.

If you’re like most IT professionals, you’re interested in scientific theory. After all, many IT staff complete college with a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Early in the book, Siegfried explains the importance.

“One of the key uses of information theory is in helping computer designers to make efficient use of information. In the early days of computers, storage memory was expensive. A computer program needed to do its job using the least possible amount of information.…The math of information theory made it possible to calculate how a given message could be stored using the least possible number of bits.”

The Bit and the Pendulum describes several ways that continued developments and new technologies could significantly impact computing. Quantum cryptography, or the manipulation of subatomic information to encrypt messages, is one example.

Paradigm shift
When inventors perfected the first mechanical clock, scientists began viewing the universe like a gigantic timepiece. Later, the steam engine rose to technical prominence. It, too, became a metaphorical framework, as Siegfried describes, that science used to describe the fundamental laws that govern life and the universe.

Thus, as the information age gains tremendous speed (despite dot-com failures and a plunge in the stock values for practically every technology company in existence), it should come as no surprise that physicists, scientists, and other researchers find value in information physics.

“It from Bit”
The essence of information theory can be easily summarized as “It from Bit.” Siegfried explains that the phrase, coined by professor and physicist John Archibald Wheeler, was described in Wheeler’s autobiography.

“I have been led to think of analogies between the way a computer works and the way the universe works,” Siegfried quotes Wheeler as writing. “The computer is built on yes-no logic.…The universe and all that it contains (‘it’) may arise from the myriad yes-no choices of measurement (‘bit’).”

I must warn you that this information is presented in the book’s introduction. The concepts and theories Siegfried describes get only more complicated, as do the explanations. In short, reading The Bit and the Pendulum made my head hurt.

But that’s good for you. That’s how you learn.

If you take the time
If you sit down to read The Bit and the Pendulum, do yourself a favor. Turn off the TV, turn off the stereo, and turn off the ringer on your telephone. Immerse yourself in his text, because you must do this to understand it. Information theory demands more of your mind than does a typical IT text.

Should you take the time, you’ll learn of several theories that I found intriguing and relevant. Almost all of the theories Siegfried examines have the potential to significantly influence IT in the future. In addition to discussing a wide variety of emerging scientific theories, Siegfried examines the following:
  • ·        Why Star Trek-type teleportation is possible, but a challenge
  • ·        How nature uses logic gates just like a computer
  • ·        How cells act as mini computers
  • ·        Quantum cryptography and its implications
  • ·        Quantum computing and the real-world benefits such technology could bring
  • ·        The notion of DNA as a hard drive

While Siegfried tackles complex topics, it’s clear he’s familiar with the theories, principles, and subjects he covers. What’s more, he makes complicated theories, including Landauer’s principle, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and quantum mechanics, readily approachable and understandable.

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