cover image A SHORTCUT THROUGH TIME: The Path to the Quantum Computer

A SHORTCUT THROUGH TIME: The Path to the Quantum Computer

George Johnson, . . Knopf, $25 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-375-41193-9

Johnson has been nominated for several awards for earlier books on physics and physicists (Strange Beauty; Fire in the Mind). Here he sticks mainly to science, providing a quick overview of a cutting-edge union between quantum theory and computing. The book begins by describing a computer as "just a box with a bunch of switches." Although today's computer switches are imbedded in circuitry, they can in principle be made of any material, like the early banks of vacuum tubes; Johnson also recalls a tic-tac-toe–playing machine created from Tinkertoys in the 1970s. An ordinary computer switch, binary in nature, registers as either a zero or a one, but if a single atom were harnessed as a switch, its dual nature as both particle and wave means it could be "superpositioned," simultaneously zero and one. A series of such switches could handle complex calculations much more swiftly than conventional computers: an entertaining theory, but impractical. Except that a quantum computer's ability to factor large numbers—determining the smaller numbers by which they are divisible—would have a critical application in cryptography, with a string of atoms used to create (or break) complex codes. After discussing competing projects that aim to make the theory of quantum computing a reality, the book concludes with ruminations on the implications of the projects' possible success. Using "a series of increasingly better cartoons" and plain language, Johnson's slim volume is so straightforward that readers without a technical background will have no problem following his chain of thought. Illus. Agent, Esther Newberg. (Mar. 2)