The Inforati Files
By Tim Devaney and Tom Stein
Science journalist Charles Seife is not afraid to tackle the big topics. Really big topics. Like how the universe works. His latest book is called Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes.
Seife says it's best to think of the universe as an enormous laptop computer. "It's definitely an extreme concept," he admits, "but the way to understand the universe is through information processing. The entire universe is shaped by the information that's moving back and forth in it."
We reached Seife in New York City, where he's a professor of journalism at NYU.
When you wrote Decoding the Universe weren't you afraid you were biting off more than you could chew?
At Science magazine I was covering physics for a number of years, and there were all these things that seemed to fit together if you looked at them from an information-theoretic perspective. But no one had connected the dots except for a few really good scientists. I wanted to tell the story of how quantum mechanics and thermodynamics and information theory all were facets of the same thing. The way to understand the universe is through information processing.
You begin your book with the World War II code crackers. Is that the beginning of information theory?
Information theory was born in the sweaty code rooms of World War II. Before World War II the United States was very skeptical of the concept of code breaking. But several very important turning points were caused by cryptography. In the Atlantic the cracking of the Enigma code saved England's bacon. The U-boat warfare was crushing England and, by cracking the code, they were able to figure out where the (enemy) submarines were.
How does information continue to change our world?
Just look at today's headlines: the intelligence reports about whether Iran has a nuclear program or not. Gathering information and interpreting it properly makes the difference between whether our society goes to war or not.
Is there such a thing as too much information?
Absolutely. I think data in some ways increases exponentially whereas useful data increases linearly. So as data gathering gets better and better, it gets harder to sort the wheat from the chaff. On another level, privacy protections were always based on the idea that we as citizens had to prevent a powerful monolithic force like the government from spying on us. Instead, it turns out now that we have these distributed information-gathering networks in private hands. It's not the monolithic bureaucracy that we have to worry about, it's the confluence of these little-information gathering sources.
What's the most important piece of information you've ever learned?
The most important piece of information, broadly speaking, is not to trust any information. As a journalist I've learned to be skeptical of any source of information and that data, no matter how neutrally presented, is subject to measurement errors or biases in the person who's presenting the data to you. Understanding the limitations of every bit of information you receive is probably most important.
What are your favorite information sources?
I love going through census data. Census data is a gold mine of fun stuff. Whenever you have a hunch about something like the behavior of a certain segment of the population, census data gives you an indicator that allows you to test that hypothesis indirectly. It gives you an indicator that you're on the right track. For example, during Hurricane Katrina there was a bridge leading from New Orleans to a parish on the outskirts and there were sheriffs turning away the refugees. From the census records it became very, very obvious that, demographically, it was a very different group of people on each side of the bridge.
What has been the most significant change in information management in the last ten years?
The fact that you can store and process tremendous amounts of data opens up opportunities. But it also opens up places where there can be abuse. Total information awareness is when it becomes possible to snaffle up the world's e-mail traffic or snaffle up a good proportion of telephone conversations. You can do amazing thingsand amazingly scary thingswhen your computer chugs on those terabytes and terabytes of data without choking.
What piece of information would you really like to know right now?
Other than the meaning of life (assuming there is a meaning)? I would love to get the ultimate formulas for the physical world. If there is a mathematical formula that allows you to understand physical laws, I'd love to get it.