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A Shortcut Through Time
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About the Author

George Johnson writes about science for The New York Times. His most recent books, Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics and Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order, were finalists for the Aventis and Rhone-Poulenc science book prizes. He has also won the AAAS Science Journalism Award. He is codirector of the Santa Fe Science-Writing Workshop and a former Alicia Patterson fellow. Mr. Johnson lives in Santa Fe. He can be reached on the World Wide Web at talaya.net.

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It's hard to imagine how the newest Pentium chip could pack 40 million electronic switches into a nickel-sized bit of silicon and even harder to imagine what that means for computing. A recipient of the Science Journalism Award, Johnson should make it all clear. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

"Sets a new standard for science writing . . . a delight and a rare gem."--The New York Times "Using metaphors instead of mathematics, George Johnson brings clarity to the strange world of the quantum computer."-- Scientific American "He makes you smart and quantum computing real." -- Kevin Kelly, Wired "Lucid and accessible. . . . Johnson does a fine job of telling a story that makes sense both to those who are completely at home in the mathematical theory of the subatomic world and to those whose reaction to the theory is abject terror. . . . A beguiling combination of clarity and enthusiasm." -- New Scientist

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) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.

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