(p. C7) There were four essential prophets whose mathematics brought us into the Information Age: Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Alan Turing and Claude Shannon. In “A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age,” Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman make a convincing case for their subtitle while reminding us that Shannon never made this claim himself.
. . .
The only one of the four Information Age pioneers who was also an electrical engineer, Shannon was practical as well as brilliant.
. . .
Wiener’s theory of information, drawing on his own background in thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and the study of random processes, was cloaked in opaque mathematics that was impenetrable to most working engineers.
. . .
“Before Shannon,” Messrs. Soni and Goodman write, “information was a telegram, a photograph, a paragraph, a song. After Shannon, information was entirely abstracted.” He derived explicit formulas for rates of transmission, the capacity of an ideal channel, ability to correct errors and coding efficiency that could be understood by anyone familiar with logarithms to the base 2.
Mathematicians use mathematics to understand things. Engineers use mathematics to build things. Engineers love logarithms as a carpenter loves a familiar tool. The electronic engineers who flooded into civilian life in the aftermath of World War II adopted Shannon’s theory as passionately as they had avoided Wiener’s, bringing us the age of digital machines.
. . .
Despite the progress of technology, we still have no clear understanding of how memories are stored in our own brains: Shannon’s principles of redundancy and error correction are no doubt involved in preserving memory, but how does the process work and why does it sometimes fail? Shannon died of Alzheimer’s disease in February 2001. The mind that gave us the collective memory we now so depend on had its own memory taken away.
For the full review, see:
George Dyson. “The Elegance of Ones and Zeroes.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 22, 2017): C7.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 21, 2017.)
The book under review, is:
Soni, Jimmy, and Rob Goodman. A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.