Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Book Review: 'A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age' by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

By Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman

Review by David Wineberg

For years, I have been reading references to Claude Shannon because of his involvement in so many critical developments in science, communications, Bell Labs, and even the stock market. About his sense of humor or his riding a unicycle through Bell Labs – while juggling (a favorite hobby). And about his groundbreaking, earth-shaking realization that all communication, from voice to music to documents to photos – is all data and could be treated the same way. Without this insight, I could not post this review today. But there was no way to get my fill of Claude Shannon – no biographies or documentaries of an American genius who lived until 2001! A Mind At Play begins to fill this yawning gap (and it seems a documentary is finally in the works as well). 

Shannon was a natural. He simply did. Whatever caught his eye. He invented machines all his life, designed them, machined them, theorized their optimization, and cleared the air on numerous topics that concerned them. His great gift to us was his reductionism. He could look at a problem and strip away the redundancies, the tangents, the superfluities – and the noise. Especially the noise. The bare core that was left was now addressable and solvable. With that, he could add back the other factors as needed. It made his solutions elegant. This clarity of vision is dispiritingly rare. That a man of his many other abilities had it has benefitted the world disproportionately.

He was in it for the intellectual challenge. While other scientists won Nobel Prizes, fame, fortune, privilege and rank, Shannon shunned the limelight and kept working (and playing). “Down to Earth” doesn’t begin to describe him. His toy room served him to the end. He hated speeches, and preferred playing the clarinet (or chess) to lecturing. This was in no way a stock-standard scientist. His brilliance was evident to everyone throughout his long life. And he worked with all of the most brilliant. 

My favorite story in the book is when his young daughter brought out a package of toothpicks and dropped them all over the wood plank floor. Rather than scold her or instruct her to clean it right up, Shannon observed: ”You know, you could calculate the value of pi from that.” I also liked the index finger he installed in the basement toy room. When his wife wanted him to come upstairs, she pulled the cord in the kitchen and the finger curled upward. This man makes for a fascinating biography.

Among his great discoveries was how to eliminate noise. Noise in the transmission of data corrupts it, making the message incomplete, wrong or unintelligible. Shannon broke down elements to their smallest, and assigned them numeric labels. If you gave (say) a letter a two digit equivalent, you would get a wrong letter if one of the digits was blurred by noise. By giving them longer strings of digits, they could tolerate noise and still be correct at the receiving end. This sort of outside the box thinking revolutionized countless industries.

We owe Claude Shannon a lot, and Soni & Goodman’s book takes a big first step in paying that debt.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.