A few months ago, I signed a contract with MIT Press to publish a new book: an edited anthology of selected posts from this blog, along with all-new updates and commentary. The book’s tentative title (open to better suggestions) is Speaking Truth to Parallelism: Dispatches from the Frontier of Quantum Computing Theory. The new book should be more broadly accessible than Quantum Computing Since Democritus, although still far from your typical pop-science book. My goal is to have STTP out by next fall, to coincide with Shtetl-Optimized‘s tenth anniversary.
If you’ve been a regular reader, then this book is my way of thanking you for … oops, that doesn’t sound right. If it were a gift, I should give it away for free, shouldn’t I? So let me rephrase: buying this reasonably-priced book can be your way of thanking me, if you’ve enjoyed my blog all these years. But it will also (I hope) be a value-added proposition: not only will you be able to put the book on your coffee table to impress an extremely nerdy subset of your friends, you’ll also get “exclusive content” unavailable on the blog.
To be clear, the posts that make it into the book will be ruthlessly selected: nothing that’s pure procrastination, politics, current events, venting, or travelogue, only the choice fillets that could plausibly be claimed to advance the public understanding of science. Even for those, I’ll add additional background material, and take out digs unworthy of a book (making exceptions for anything that really cracks me up on a second reading).
If I had to pick a unifying theme for the book, I’d sigh and then say: it’s about a certain attitude toward the so-called “deepest questions,” like the nature of quantum mechanics or the ultimate limits of computation or the mind/body problem or the objectivity of mathematics or whether our universe is a computer simulation. It’s an attitude that I wish more popular articles managed to get across, and at any rate, that people ought to adopt when reading those articles. The attitude combines an openness to extraordinary claims, with an unceasing demand for clarity about the nature of those claims, and an impatience whenever that demand is met with evasion, obfuscation, or a “let’s not get into technicalities right now.” It’s an attitude that constantly asks questions like:
“OK, so what can you actually do that’s different?”
“Why doesn’t that produce an absurd result when applied to simple cases?”
“Why isn’t that just a fancy way of saying what I could’ve said in simpler language?”
“Why couldn’t you have achieved the same thing without your ‘magic ingredient’?”
“So what’s your alternative account for how that happens?”
“Why isn’t that obvious?”
“What’s really at stake here?”
“What’s the catch?”
It’s an attitude that accepts the possibility that such questions might have satisfying answers—in which case, a change in worldview will be in order. But not before answers are offered, openly debated, and understood by the community of interested people.
Of all the phrases I use on this blog, I felt “Speaking Truth to Parallelism” best captured the attitude in question. I coined the phrase back in 2007, when D-Wave’s claims to be solving Sudoku puzzles with a quantum computer unleashed a tsunami of journalism about QCs—what they are, how they would work, what they could do—that (in my opinion) perfectly illustrated how not to approach a metaphysically-confusing new technology. Having said that, the endless debate around D-Wave won’t by any means be the focus of this book: it will surface, of course, but only when it helps to illustrate some broader point.
In planning this book, the trickiest issue was what to do with comments. Ultimately, I decided that the comments make Shtetl-Optimized what it is—so for each post I include, I’ll include a brief selection of the most interesting comments, together with my responses to them. My policy will be this: by default, I’ll consider any comments on this blog to be fair game for quoting in the book, in whole or in part, and attributed to whatever handle the commenter used. However, if you’d like to “opt out” of having your comments quoted, I now offer you a three-month window in which to do so: just email me, or leave a comment (!) on this thread. You can also request that certain specific comments of yours not be quoted, or that your handle be removed from your comments, or your full name added to them—whatever you want.
Update (9/24): After hearing from several of you, I’ve decided on the following modified policy. In all cases where I have an email address, I will contact the commenters about any of their comments that I’m thinking of using, to request explicit permission to use them. In the hopefully-rare cases where I can’t reach a given commenter, but where their comment raised what seems like a crucial point requiring a response in the book, I might quote from the comment anyway—but in those cases, I’ll be careful not to reproduce very long passages, in a way that might run afoul of the fair use exception.