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Original Essays | September 18, 2014

Lin Enger: IMG Knowing vs. Knowing

On a hot July evening years ago, my Toyota Tercel overheated on a flat stretch of highway north of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A steam geyser shot up from... Continue »
  1. $17.47 Sale Hardcover add to wish list

    The High Divide

    Lin Enger 9781616203757

Interviews | September 2, 2014

Jill Owens: IMG David Mitchell: The Interview

David MitchellDavid Mitchell's newest mind-bending, time-skipping novel may be his most accomplished work yet. Written in six sections, one per decade, The Bone... Continue »
  1. $21.00 Sale Hardcover add to wish list

    The Bone Clocks

    David Mitchell 9781400065677


Tech Q&A

Charles Seife

Describe your latest project.
Everybody knows about the two great scientific revolutions of the 20th century: quantum theory and relativity. There's a third — information theory — that might be even more important.

Information theory automatically conjures images of computers and bits and bytes; while that's true, there's something much more fundamental. Information, like mass or energy, is a fundamental property of objects in our universe, and, by looking at the laws of information, physicists are beginning to unravel the mysteries of relativity and quantum mechanics. In the process, they're coming up with some of the most bizarre and mind-blowing ideas that science has ever produced. For example, some mainstream physicists believe that information theory leads to the idea of parallel universes — and that somewhere in an alternate universe, there's an exact copy of you reading this exact paragraph. (And somewhere else, there's an exact copy of you trying to read this exact paragraph, but you're being distracted by a small carnivorous wombat that's chewing on your ankle.)

Decoding the Universe explains how something as seemingly mundane as "information" leads to such strange conclusions — and how information theory is helping scientists reconcile quantum theory and relativity.

What inspires you to sit down and write?
Looming deadlines. That, and the joy of discovery. I love finding things out. When I learn about something interesting that people don't know about, I want to reveal it to the world.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
I've never taken it, but I have no doubt that I'd have a high score. I've done very geeky things, such as crashing a Cray-2 supercomputer. That should be worth a few points on the test.

Chess or video games?
Video games — at least in the past. I find that I have little patience for the complexity of many modern games, but I still appreciate a good round of Ms. Pac Man.

What do you do for relaxation?
Right now, I have little time for relaxation; I'm in a new job and bopping back and forth between DC and NY on weekends. But when my schedule calms down, I hope to get back into fencing (I'm an épéeist and ex-sabreur) and get reacquainted with the charms of New York City.

What's your favorite blog right now?
I have a few sites I visit regularly. Using the broad sense of the word "blog," I read Romenesko's media news, Jay Rosen's PressThink, MetaFilter, and even Fark.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Douglas Adams. No question. Vogons trump pointy-haired bosses.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
An early influence was James Thurber — his Fables for Our Time, in particular. D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths got me interested in mythology at a very early age. And then, of course, there was The Phantom Tollbooth.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
I think that there are a bunch of medical technologies that have incredible promise to make our lives better in a few decades: genomics, proteomics, stem cells, tissue engineering. Whether or not these technologies will live up to our promise — and if they do, whether the average person will have the money to be able to benefit from those technologies — that's another question.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
I'd love to get into the mind of Leonardo da Vinci. It would be amazing to see the world from the perspective of someone who was so brilliant in so many different ways.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
I enjoyed math, science (particularly physics and chemistry), English, and history. I was terrible at French. Absolutely awful.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
I'd like for it to be useful in a few years, rather than being obsolete six months after I buy it.

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
I remember going to the Franklin Institute when I was a kid -- the room with physics experiments stands out in my mind. All the levers, pulleys, gyroscopes, and such really helped me see that, on some level, there were rules that determined how the world worked.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
I think that technology will advance more and more quickly, while scientific advancement will slow down. In the United States, the physics community, for example, has been hurting very badly because of budget cuts; NASA's fighting for survival. If there isn't a true national commitment to making basic research a priority, I think that we can easily become moribund.

Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
This is a tough question. I think that ten years is too short a horizon to see the (usually) glacial changes in national scientific programs. In the near term, the US has a lead, but the center of gravity, at least for some aspects of physics, is moving to Europe. In the long term, India and China have tremendous potential. One thing that works in America's favor is that English is the language of scientific discourse — we've got the homefield advantage.

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