Bits

Catherine Caufield

  • Three Scientists and their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information by Robert Wright
    Times, 324 pp, $18.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 8129 1328 0
  • Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris
    Bodley Head, 495 pp, £14.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 370 31332 1
  • Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John by Isaac Newton
    Modus Vivendi, 323 pp, £800.00
  • What do you care what other people think? Further Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman
    Unwin Hyman, 255 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 04 440341 0

Are you ready for digital physics? Physics that says that the universe is a huge computer? For those of us who never quite mastered the old physics, the idea of tackling a new version may not be terribly tempting. But Ed Fredkin, the controversial scientist whose brain-child it is, insists that digital physics is simpler than the ordinary kind. In fact, its simplicity, its elegance is one of the main reasons why Fredkin believes in it. And Fredkin does believe. Like Edward Wilson and Kenneth Boulding, the two other scientist-visionaries whose lives and theories are examined in Robert Wright’s Three Scientists and their Gods, Fredkin has devoted himself to finding a theory that explains it all, that brings everything together, from DNA to slime cells, ant colonies, telephone systems, supermarket chains, television and religion.

As his hero, Richard Feynman, might have said, Ed Fredkin is a very interesting guy. He is, among other things, a self-made millionaire without a college degree who became a full professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before he was 35. Fredkin’s father, Manuel, was so competitive with his own children that he could not accept it when his eldest son began taking the same shoe size as him. His constant taunt, Ed remembers, was: ‘I have more brains in my little toe than you will ever have in your head.’ Ed was a strange, solitary, ambitious boy who fitted in nowhere and nursed an aggrieved sense of unrecognised superiority. Discussing his schooldays, he emphasises his unpopularity, the fact that he was always the last person picked to be on a team. Fredkin wasn’t the only outcast, but he insists that he was the most outcast. ‘I was in this big left-out group. But I was in the pole position. I was really left out.’

Fredkin’s theory of digital physics says that the fundamental particles that make up our world – atoms, electrons, quarks – can be further reduced to bits, just like those that carry information in computers. Like the flashcards that American college football fans and Communist schoolchildren on parade use to generate pictures of their heroes, each bit carries a very limited amount of information: it is ‘on’ or ‘off.’ But many such binary bits (or flash-cards) in the right pattern can transmit very complicated messages (or images). Fredkin doesn’t believe that the universe is composed of electrons and photons, atoms and quarks. ‘What I believe is that there’s an information process and the bits, when they’re in certain configurations, behave like the thing we call the electron, or the hydrogen atom, or whatever.’

It is axiomatic among most scientists that if two theories describe and predict reality equally well, the simple one is the better. Neatness counts in science, as do elegance and simplicity. And in some ways digital physics is simpler and easier to understand than its more conventional rival. To describe the complex behaviour of sub-atomic particles, physicists use the complex mathematical language of differential equations. Digital physics uses something called a recursive algorithm, which anyone can understand. An algorithm is a set of instructions, such as ‘multiply a number by four and add three.’ A recursive algorithm is an algorithm that feeds on itself. If, for example, the number two were fed into the previous algorithm, the result, 11, would be fed back into the same algorithm. That result, 47, would also be fed in. And so on. Even a very simple recursive algorithm – such as instructions that any bit with three ‘off’ neighbours must turn ‘on’, and any with three ‘on’ neighbours must turn ‘off’ – can produce a complex, changing and hard-to-predict pattern.

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