Computing with Quantum Cats – Strange and exciting times are ahead – #science #bookreview

Computing with Quantum Cats

From Colossus to Qubits

John Gribbin

(Prometheus Books – hardcover, Kindle)

John Gribbin’s new book, Computing with Quantum Cats, is an entertaining, informative and definitely eye-opening look at quantum computing’s recent progress, as well as its exciting near-future possibilities.

The “conventional” (a.k.a. “classical”) computers currently on our desktops, in our briefcases, and in our pockets and purses keep getting smaller and faster, yet laden with more features, memory and processing power. “But,” cautions John Gribbin, a veteran science writer, “the process cannot go on indefinitely; there are limits to how powerful, fast and cheap a ‘classical’ computer can be.”CompwithQuantumCats

Already we are cramming a billion transistors into tiny chips and moving much of our data and programs out to the “cloud,” because we are running out of both physical space and memory space on our shrunken devices.

So what’s next, if the end of Moore’s Law is here?

Gribbin predicts that “within a decade the computer world will be turned upside down”–by quantum computers that  “will enable physicists to come to grips with the nature of quantum reality, where communication can occur faster than the speed of light, teleportation is possible, and particles can be in two places at once. The implications are as yet unknowable,” he concedes, “but it is fair to say that the quantum computer represents an advance as far beyond the conventional computer as the conventional computer is beyond the abacus.”

For now, quantum computers are functioning  at a level somewhat equivalent to the early classical computers that, nearly 70 years ago, could perform only rudimentary calculations, yet filled large rooms and required 25 kilowatts or more of electrical power to light up hundreds or thousands of  vacuum tubes. It may be decades or perhaps just a few years until quantum desktop PCs or quantum smartphones become a reality.

What makes quantum computing such a big deal? 

Classical computers, Gribbin writes, “store and manipulate information consisting of “binary digits, or bits. These are like ordinary switches that can be in one of two positions, on or off, up or down. The state of a switch is represented by the numbers 0 and 1, and all the activity of a computer involves changing the settings on those switches in an appropriate way.”

He notes that two “classical” bits can represent any of the four numbers from 0 to 3 (00,01, 10, and 11). But once you start using quantum bits–qubits (pronounced “cubits”)–the scale of possibilities quickly becomes astronomical.

The “quantum switches can be in both states, on and off, at the same time, like Schrodinger’s ‘dead and alive’ cat. In other words, they can store 0 and 1 simultaneously.” Or both can be off or both can be on, creating three possibilities.

“Looking further into the future,” Gribbin continues, “a quantum computer based on a 30-qubit processor would have the equivalent computing power of a conventional machine running at 10 teraflops (trillions of floating-point operations per second)–ten thousand times faster than conventional desktop computers today….” 

His new book presents an enlightening, engrossing blend of facts and speculations about quantum computing, as well as short biographical sketches of key people who have helped quantum computing become a reality.  These range from Alan Turing and John Von Neumann to more recent researchers such as Nobel Prize recipients Tony Leggett and Brian Josephson, to name a few. Their key research efforts also are explored.

The author notes that “the enormous challenge remains of constructing a quantum computer on a scale large enough to beat classical computers at a range of tasks….” He also observes that “many competing approaches are being tried out in an attempt to find the one that works on the scale required.” And he concedes that in a research field now changing very fast, “I’ve no idea what will seem the best bet by the time you read these words, so I shall simply set out a selection of the various [techniques] to give you a flavor of what is going.”

John Gribbin’s other books include In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, Erwin Schrodinger and the Quantum Revolution, and In Search of the Multiverse.

The need to break enemy codes in World War II gave us classical computers, Gribbin points out. In a curious twist, it may be the need to create truly unbreakable codes that will help usher in quantum computing as a practical reality.

Si Dunn

Make: Volume 32 – Zany and practical projects and articles for DIY builders – #bookreview

Make: Volume 32
(O’Reilly, paperback)

Make: is a science, technology, and do-it-yourself (DIY) projects magazine published quarterly in paperback book format. Volume 32 not only has intriguing articles about private rocketeers, flying motorcycles, and human-size replicas of videogame costumes and weapons. It also has about two dozen “complete plans” for a wide array of useful and zany projects.

One of the projects in Volume 32 is “The Awesome Button,” a big red desktop button that you can hit when you can’t think of a synonym for the totally overused word “awesome” while you’re composing email or a letter or a manuscript. The project uses a $16 Teensy USB Development Board made by PJRC, plus some downloaded code. When your fist hammers down on the big red button, the board generates random synonyms for “awesome” and sends them to your computer so you can quickly accept or reject them in your document.

Another project is a catapult launcher that will send a tiny balsa wood glider zooming 150 feet into the air. Beats the heck out of a rubber band looped around a Popsicle stick.

And another DIY article focuses on the joys of salvaging perfectly good electronic and mechanical parts from discarded laser printers, so you can use the parts in other projects.

Make: Volume 33 is due to appear in January. In the meantime, Volume 32 is full of fun reading and intriguing projects, such as how to transform data files into synthesized music.

Si Dunn

What Makes You Tick? – Do we exist only inside our brains, or does the mind have a longer reach? – #bookreview

What Makes You Tick? A New Paradigm for Neuroscience
Gerard Verschuuren
(Solas Press, paperback)

What is the connection between the mind and the brain? Does the mind exist independent of the brain? And does the human mind communicate with something—or someone–beyond its “biological substrata and physics”?

Gerard Verschuuren tackles these and other mystery-laden questions in his book that proposes a “new paradigm for neuroscience.” While he hopes to expand the thinking of neuroscientists—to look beyond the brain for answers to what and who and how we are—he also has written What Makes You Tick? with general readers in mind.

Verschuuren contends: “Science can’t possibly explain all of what we are . Apparently , it is not just a clockwork mechanism that makes us tick; there is so much more to it.”

The author is a human geneticist with a doctorate in the philosophy of science. He also is a computer specialist who has published several other works. As writer, speaker, and consultant, he works “at the interface of science, philosophy, and religion.”

He brings all of these aspects together in his new book, and he draws from notable scientists and others who believe that the mind has connections and workings that reach beyond the complex processes at work inside our skulls.

You may not agree with all of Dr. Verschuuren’s assertions, conclusions and evidence. But his book is well written, and his points are well argued. What Makes Us Tick? likely will stir up some new debates and possibly some expanded thinking, too, about where the mind actually resides within – and beyond? – the human body.

Si Dunn

Surviving Orbit the DIY Way – You, too, can launch a satellite – #diy #science #bookreview

Surviving Orbit the DIY Way
Sandy Antunes
(O’Reilly, paperbackKindle)

Okay, it’s not exactly Star Trek. For less than the price of a reasonably good used car, you now can build your own picosatellite from a kit, get it launched into low Earth orbit by commercial rocket, and receive data from space.

Surviving Orbit the DIY Way is a new book in O’Reilly’s four-book series focusing on do-it-yourself satellites. The project book’s focus is “Testing the Limits Your Satellite Can and Must Match.”

The first book, DIY Satellite Platforms, was released by O’Reilly in January, 2012, and focuses on “Building a Space-Ready General Base Picosatellite for Any Mission.” A forthcoming book, DIY Instruments for Amateur Space, will emphasize “Inventing Utility for Your Spacecraft Once It Achieves Orbit.” And a future book will show how to install miniature radio equipment in your picosatellite, so you and others can receive its data transmissions.

In Surviving Orbit the DIY Way, the text describes the conditions a picosatellite faces in orbit. It also explains how to build and use a $100 thermal vacuum chamber , plus an inexpensive centrifuge, vibration test stand, and other do-it-yourself test facilities needed to prepare your picosatellite for the stresses of launch and deployment.

Writes the author: “…with a bit of boldness and a strong do-it-yourself spirit, you can be flying your own picosatellites ‘the maker way’.”

You won’t be boldly going where no one has gone before, of course. Yet, with picosatellites, you can join the numerous schools, groups, and individuals now putting useful and educational low-budget space experiments into orbit around Planet Earth.

Si Dunn

Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments – Real CSI basics – #bookreview

Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture
Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson
(O’Reilly, paperbackKindle)

Movies, TV shows and detective novels have elevated forensic science to a cultural fascination. And in real life, a clue uncovered with a microscope or a chemical test frequently is the one that provides the big break toward solving a crime.

You may daydream about what it might be like to work in a crime lab. And if you write crime novels, you likely will generate mental images of crime scene investigators or detectives trying to decipher puzzling clues. You might even picture a laboratory packed with sophisticated electronic analyzers that cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

Indeed, some labs do have that type of equipment. But this book’s authors note: “Here’s a startling fact: the vast majority of forensic work, even today, is done with low-tech procedures that would be familiar to a forensic scientist of 100 years ago.”

Indeed, they add: “You don’t need a multi-million dollar lab to do real, useful forensic investigations. All you need are some chemicals and basic equipment, much of which can be found around the home.”

You will also need “a decent microscope—the fundamental tool of the forensic scientist—but even an inexpensive student model will serve.”

The Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture is intended for “responsible” teenagers and adults who want “to learn about forensic science by doing real, hands-on laboratory work. DIY hobbyists and forensics enthusiasts can use this book to learn and master the essential practical skills and fundamental knowledge needed to pursue forensics as a lifelong hobby. Home school parents and public school teachers can use this book as the basis of a year-long, lab-based course in forensic science.”

The hefty, 425-page book offers more than 50 lab experiments, and each session represents actual procedures used each day by professional forensic analysts.

The labs are organized into 11 groups:

  1. Soil Analysis
  2. Hair and Fiber Analysis
  3. Glass and Plastic Analysis
  4. Revealing Latent Fingerprints
  5. Detecting Blood
  6. Impression Analysis
  7. Forensic Drug Testing
  8. Forensic Toxicology
  9. Gunshot and Explosive Residues Analysis
  10. Detecting Altered and Forged Documents
  11. Forensic Biology

Even though the book says it contains “no lectures,” each lab is introduced with a short background summary, plus lab safety cautions and warnings, lists of equipment and materials, and related how-to instructions. Also, each group of labs is introduced with a short overview of its category and its importance in forensic science. The book also contains comments from Dennis Hilliard, director of the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory.

This is not a book that young students should use without supervision. Even “responsible teens” will need close guidance. And adults, too, must be very careful to follow all safety instructions.

But this is a fascinating how-to guide for learning the basics of forensic science, whether you hope to do it as a career or hobby, gain a science credit, or merely describe some of the techniques in a mystery novel or screenplay.

Si Dunn

Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments – Serious science for homeschoolers and biology hobbyists – #bookreview

Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture
Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson
(Make:Books/O’Reilly Media, paperback, list price $34.99; Kindle edition, list price $27.99)

This is serious science in the form of a 359-page workbook devoted to 30+ lab experiments that can be performed at home, with the right equipment and materials.

The book is intended for adults who want to “explore the science of nature as a life-long hobby,” and it’s intended for homeschoolers who need and want challenging biology labs.

The book’s experiments are not cheesy and simple. Some example titles include “Simulated DNA Separation by Gel Electrophoresis”, “Investigating Bacterial Antibiotic Sensitivity”, “Soil and Water Pollution Testing,” and “Observing Specialized Eukaryotic Cells.” The review questions at the end of each lab also are challenging and require thoughtful, written answers rather than simple fill-in-a-blank responses.

Background material is provided before each experiment. But the authors recommend that their book be used in conjunction with a standard biology textbook, such as “the freely downloadable CK-12 Biology.” Meanwhile, the authors’ company, The Home Scientist, LLC, offers “inexpensive custom kits that provide specialized equipment and supplies you’ll need to complete the experiments.” You will also need a microscope and some “common household items” to use this book.

Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments is well-written and well-illustrated. Before it introduces its experiments, it describes how to maintain a properly formatted laboratory notebook, how to set up a good home biology laboratory, how to use a microscope, and how to be careful with the necessary tools and materials. The workbook is part of the “DIY Science” series published by Make:Books, an imprint of Maker Media, which is a division of O’Reilly Media, Inc.

– Si Dunn


Make: Electronics -Learning by doing & messing things up – A fun how-to book #bookreview

Make: Electronics
By Charles Platt
(O’Reilly, paperback, list price $34.99; Kindle edition, list price $27.99)

Okay, big confession time. I learned electronics back in the day when vacuum tubes were still state of the art, and ham radio hobbyists happily tinkered with World War II surplus aircraft radios, tank transmitters and telegraph keys that had thigh clamps so radio operators could communicate with HQ while bouncing around in Jeeps.

Electronics is still one of my hobbies. But I haven’t kept good pace with advancing technologies, and I don’t tackle as many do-it-yourself projects as I used to. I have a large cache of small electronics components stashed in plastic crates in a shed. And those crates seldom have been opened in recent years.

This book has changed that. Make: Electronics by Charles Platt has gotten me excited again about wiring up simple projects. It is not a new book. It was published in 2009. But it is still up to date in the teaching of electronics fundamentals. 

Platt’s book approaches electronics the same way I learned it, by burning things out, messing things up and then studying some of the theory, learning how to read schematic diagrams, and learning how be more careful and thoughtful as circuits are wired up. Of course, in my day, some mis-wired electronic projects literally caught on fire, and more than one exploded.

Platt’s how-to experiments, fortunately, use low voltages and low currents, typically 9-volt batteries or a few double-A batteries. The projects can be constructed on small breadboards or perforated boards or even built “dead-bug style,” where the leads of the components simply are soldered together without any other kind of support.

His well-organized and well-written book keeps its promise to be “a hands-on primer for the new electronics enthusiast.” But it can teach some new tricks to some old electronics hounds, as well.

Make: Electronics begins with a small shopping list. You will need a few inexpensive components and tools to get started. Then it moves into some very basic and classic experiments, such as touching a 9-volt battery to your tongue, making a battery with a lemon, using resistors to reduce the voltage in a circuit, applying too much voltage to an LED and burning it out, and shorting a small battery to feel its heat.

Some fundamental theories of electricity and electronics are introduced. Proper soldering is illustrated. And then, as more theory is examined and explained, the book’s experiments move into progressively more complex projects, such as amplifiers. By the end of the book, the reader is tinkering with basic robotics and microcontrollers.

Platt provides numerous helpful resources and references for further examination, as well.

The only disappointment for me is that radio-frequency projects are limited to the construction of a basic crystal radio. But the author deftly covers a lot of ground in his book, and even simple RF circuits admittedly are better handled by those who have mastered the fundamentals first. 

Bottom line, this book has some circuits I am eager to wire up, because I am in the mood to learn again. Plus, I already have a boatload of parts and tools in storage, just waiting to be used. 

With luck and attention to detail, maybe nothing I build this time will blow up.

Si Dunn‘s latest book is a detective novel, Erwin’s Law. His other published works include Jump, a novella, and a book of poetry, plus several short stories, including The 7th Mars Cavalry, all available on Kindle. He is a screenwriter, a freelance book reviewer, and a former technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist.