Computing With Quantum Cats by John Gribbin (book review).

My first impression from the title. ‘Computing With Quantum Cats’ was that author John Gribbin was going to be discussing the next generation of quantum level computers. Mostly, this book starts off with the history of computers, starting off with Alan Turing and the evolving hardware of World War Two that could decode German ciphers. Something that I didn’t realise the significance that Turing chose not to hardwire his early computers but had them more flexible by programming them. He also got the first music from them as well.


Although Turing came up with the first computer, it was Hungary born/American citizen John von Neumann who got the ball rolling in the USA. Although I knew about IBM’s developments, I wasn’t aware that RCA also had a role, too. The early computer design of a CPU with memory/RAM to storage hasn’t changed in its design, even on the computer you’ve used in front of you. If anything, computer tech has just refined and shrunk in size. Its original purpose was to analyse the data from the 1890 census with 63 million punched cards carrying data. Things got speeded up with World War Two, although it took some time to move up from binary code, helped along by the development in vacuum tubes and then transistor gates for keeping and carrying information before the silicon chips we all know and love today. If you think your computer feels hot, imagine what the old monster machines must have been like without air conditioning to keep them cool. About the only dishonourable thing von Neumann did was selling the rights to IBM rather than keeping computer tech in the public domain. Had he been the sole inventor that wouldn’t have been a problem but he wasn’t.

Gribbin hits on all the main innovations in early computer development and then swings heavily into aspects of quantum mechanics and how they are used in decision making processes. For each, there is a brief resume of the people involved although why pertinent data as to who they were married to seems more a distraction. Although much is covered on quantum mechanics, this book is more to do with its application than theory, although he does touch on alternative realities caused by decision making. I still maintain that if a new universe is made from every alternative choice then it must be violating the Law of Conservation of Matter/Energy so surely something must be happening to condense these alternatives if it doesn’t fundamentally change the cosmos. Mind you, there’s no proof either way that this is happening.

Going back to von Neumann, he made some significant error in his original quantum mechanics theories and it wasn’t until much later that Irishman John Stewart Bell got things amended. Although Gribbin doesn’t dwell on it, I have to wonder about the scientists who followed von Neumann’s teachings. I mean, didn’t they spot the problem or just glibly followed without question? A lesson to always double check what you’re being taught with new sciences if you have doubt methinks. Considering the number of eccentric geeks we have amongst these scientists, which also makes them free-thinkers, this is even more remarkable.

The developments in teleportation by entanglement of atoms appears to be moving along at some pace although I doubt if it’ll move up to larger objects any time soon.

Although I have reservations that this book will serve everyone’s purpose, you do come away from a lot more knowledge on the people, computers and quantum mechanics than you would have had before you started which is the whole point really.

GF Willmetts

(pub: Bantam Press. 296 page illustrated indexed paperback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-593-07114-4)
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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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