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New book makes link between philosophy and quantum computing

by CIFAR May 2 / 13

In 2006, CIFAR Associate Scott Aaronson (MIT) was a postdoc at the University of Waterloo teaching a course on the broad intellectual background of quantum computing. Rather than simply lecturing, Aaronson took a unique approach to stimulate debate in his classroom.

Aaronson-book
New book by Associate Scott Aaronson explores the broad intellectual background of quantum computing.
© Cambridge University Press

Instead of teaching the linear history of how quantum mechanics was discovered, which was through the work of experimental physicists, he showed his students how the ideas of quantum computing relate to the earliest scientific, mathematical and philosophical problems, starting with ideas from the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus.

While teaching, Aaronson was simultaneously writing a blog about quantum computing, and after multiple requests by his readers, he began posting his lecture notes to the blog. The notes were so enthusiastically received that he turned the notes into a book, Quantum Computing Since Democritus, which is now available in book stores and online.

“In this volume, I present quantum mechanics in an unusual way,” says Aaronson. “I show how a mathematician could have invented quantum mechanics using the basic principles of logic and reasoning. This is not how it happened historically of course; it was the work of experimental physicists trying to solve technical problems that led us to our modern ideas of quantum mechanics. But I try to do something different in this book by placing quantum mechanics into an intellectual context of mathematics, computer science and philosophy.”

Much like his course, Quantum Computing Since Democritus walks readers from the earliest mathematical and philosophical theories all the way to the most modern ideas in quantum computing—stopping along the way to discuss topics like logic, computability, cryptography, and randomization. The book is informal and written for people who have an interest in the field but are not necessarily experts.

“The book was made possible thanks to my students,” explains Aaronson. “They were the ones who prepared transcripts of my lectures and helped me transform them into web pages for my blog. Now that the book is out, it’s nice to have something to point people to when they want to read more about what I do.”

Aaronson’s original lecture notes can be found here.