Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Vlatko Vedral's "Decoding Reality"

I had high hopes for this book. There is a big push by some theoretical physicists to interpret physics in information terms, e.g. John Wheeler's infamous "it from bit" claim. On the surface this seems odd, since the world is material and information is a measure of content in a message. What do these have in common? This book promises to explain all of this.

My reading came to an abrupt halt and I had to recalibrate my expectations about this book when Vlatko Vedral in Chapter 5 decided to throw the kitchen sink into his breathless prose. This claim brought me up short. I've bolded key bits:
This is exactly what the Second Law says: disorder must increase overall and energy must be randomly dissipated to the environment. As a consequence, the environment (e.g. our planet) absorbs this dissipated energy, which manifests itself as a rise in temperature. And so whenever any kind of energy is used we have global warming as a necessary consequence of the Second Law.

In fact, the Second Law is telling us that the only sure-fire way to prevent global warming is simply never to us any energy. Here I am not just talking about avoiding luxuries such as driving cars, using aerosols, or even taking any overseas holidays. Even when you do something as necessary as eating food, you convert it into work, but at the same time, according to the Second Law, this is an inefficient process and you inevitably make things hotter around yourslf. ... To prevent this there is only one way -- you must not do anything (though try telling that to your boss.) Quit living and there won't be any global warming -- at least none as far as man-made causes are involved (now there's a tall order for extreme environmentalists).
This is patently absurd. My immediate impulse was to throw this book across the room and declare it a waste of time. But I will persist.

What is wrong with his statement? The earth is an open system. You cannot generalize the Second Law for any open system. The earth releases heat into space. It absorbs heat from the sun, warms up, but then dissipates it into space. Vedral is correct in saying that any new activity will immediately add heat, but he ignores that the flow of heat can carry the "extra" heat out into space so there may well be no residual "heating". The debate over "global warming" is whether the earth is on a runaway warming trajectory caused by humans, the so-called "anthropomorphic global warming", aka "AGW". The Second Law of thermodynamics has nothing definitive to say about this because earth is an open system.

That a "scientist" who claims to specialize in physics and information can get such a fundamental concept so hopelessly confused tells me his book will be close to useless as a source of understanding for me. He is obviously not a deep thinker because he confuses fundamental facts even in this simple case of AGW. His book is dangerous to read because he will get many things right, but the fact that he is fundamentally confused says that he will get other facts wrong and the poor reader will have to be on guard all the way through the book trying to decide which bits are sound and which bits are wonky.

One thing this book has confirmed for me is that the mindless repetition of "global warming" has infected minds from the quite ordinary "man in the street" to those with advanced degrees who should be smarter about public controversies like "global warming". Sadly, I see Vedral showing himself to be quite human. He is susceptible to a "me too!" unthinking compliance with popular views.

Why are we duped into passively accepting popular misconceptions? The very fact that they are popular means we question them less. Worse, we fear ostracism, so we tend to conform to the viewpoints of others. You can see this with social experiments. A famous one is to have a crowd on the street suddenly turn and look up as a group. This group action is irresistible for others. They too will turn and look up.

In other experiments you can get normal people to affirm obviously false statements by putting them in an environment where collaborators of the experiment pretend to be "test subjects" and affirm some obviously wrong fact. The real test subject, if in a strong minority, e.g. is alone or just one of two in a group of a dozen, will tend to affirm the lie because of the urge to "fit in". (This is the famous Solomon Asch experiment, see details here.)

This material on "global warming" in Vedral's book tells me he is a conformist to the party line of "global warming". His specialty of quantum information gives him no expertise in climate change. As a PhD in physics he should be able to work things out from first principles, but he couldn't resist saying "me too!" in regard to "global warming". The fact that he uses sloppy reasoning and attaches "global warming" to the Second Law of thermodynamics says to me that I can't trust the rest of the book.

There are few books in which I can't find something interesting and informative. This book is one of those. It promises so much, but delivers so little. The writing styles was mind-numbingly difficult. It wasn't that he went into the bowels of mathematical details. No. It was that he skittering along with "exciting details" promising more but never delivering. He never presented compelling descriptions of the wonderful world of quantum information. Worse, he repeatedly touched on topics. Each time it promised to be something I could get my teeth into, but it never panned out. For the last third of the book I simply flipped pages and scanned the text finding what bits I could enjoy. Certainly there are places where the writing is accessible and interesting. But so much of this book is a blur. It just didn't describe anything I could get my mind into. Where are the writers like Isaac Asimov and George Gamow who could popularize science and leave the reader feeling he had learned something?

1 comment:

quantropy said...

I agree with your review of the book (see my review at http://www.chronon.org/Science/Decoding_reality.php) but to say that Vedral follows the 'party line' on global warming is nonsense. The 'party line' is that CO2 causes global warming. Vedral thinks its simply due to the release of heat i.e. he gets it wrong.