Claude Shannon, whose theories about computing, information and communications have changed the world, was born on April 30, 1916.
While recently reading The Information: a history, a theory, a flood, (Harper Collins, 2013) by James Gleick, I was reminded of something that I had almost forgotten: April 30 would have been Claude Shannon's 99th birthday (he was born in 1916), the father of modern information theory. It is a day that should be more widely noted given his contributions, and I had promised myself I would not forget it.
James Gleick's book chronicles the emergence of information theory and the role of Claude Shannon and others have had in its development.
(Source: Harper Collins)
I went back to Gleick’s book to use it as an antidote to all the recent blah-blah and attention in the media to yet another just-graduated college kid being called a genius because he had one bright idea and the good luck to be noticed and funded by venture capitalists.
Reading about Shannon's life reminds me of what true genius is all about. With one exception - building a training computer to be sold to business men who wanted to learn more about them - Shannon never founded any companies and never made the obscene amounts of money some of today's "one trick ponies" have made. But he was rich in ideas that have fundamentally affected not only computers and communications but our understanding of how our world in general works, such as in molecular genetics.
Much of Shannon's fame in electronics and communications has to do with his seminal work in a 1949 paper "Mathematical Theory of Communication." It dealt with the fundamental limits on signal processing as it relates to compressing data and reliably storing and communicating it. But Shannon's impact was much broader. Indeed almost every aspect of modern computing and communications has felt the influence of his ideas.
I first became familiar with Shannon and his work in undergraduate classes in electrical engineering and computer science at about the time of the introduction of the Intel 4040 while I was working at the California Institute of Technology. Then most of our attention was trying to get our heads around how to use his noisy channel coding theorem to figure out the best possible error-correcting methods and level of compression to apply to a signal before whatever information in it was indistinguishable from noise.
But until I read Gleick's book I did not realize how widespread the impact of information theory and what a major role Shannon played in the development of natural language processing, cryptography, neurobiology, molecular genetics, quantum computing, and pattern detection, to name a few. Shannon’s ideas did not just trigger others to look the impact of information theory on these new areas. He was there in the middle of the fray, generating key papers in all of them. One key paper he wrote, for example, explained the role information theory played in how DNA replicates without too many mistakes in its coding of gene sequences.
Before he started his life's work on information theory in the late '40s and early '50s, even his graduate school studies in the 1930s foreshadowed much of what modern computing is all about. His work then has served as the foundation of today’s practical digital circuit design techniques. A paper based on his master's thesis at the age of 23 was on the use of Boolean logic in computers and communications and was awarded the American Institute of American Engineers Award in 1939.
There was also much in his life that would make him a hero to today's DIYers. As a teenager, when the telegraph was still the primary means of long distance communications, he built radio-controlled model airplanes and even a wireless telegraph system to a friend's house, at a time when wired communications was the norm. Later in life for his own amusement he built such things as a rocket-powered flying disc, a motorized pogo stick, a flame-throwing trumpet and a calculator for doing arithmetic using Roman numerals (I, II, ...V…X…) that he called THROBAC I.
This and much more about Shannon and information theory is in Gleick's 525-page book. However, although Shannon and his ideas are in almost every chapter, he is only one many people Gleick writes about. "The Information" is actually the biography of an idea, intermixing difficult technical topics with the stories of the various researchers struggling with them.
Reading about Shannon and other like-minded researchers got me thinking about the environment in which they did their work and how different it is from today. Given those differences, maybe I have been too hard on the “one trick pony” geniuses that seem to be so common these days.
In Shannon’s day, research was heavily funded by corporations, including both basic research with no apparent short term benefits as well as applied research with well-defined clear near term results. Now most of them do little at all and most of that is applied, not basic. Also, researchers in Shannon’s time were on long leashes, left to pursue their own interests, not constantly badgered to justify their work to the accountants. There was more tolerance for those who, like Shannon, were at their most productive when they worked in isolation. And, unlike our age of smartphones, emails and twitter messages constantly grabbing our attention, it was possible to think through things alone and undisturbed when it was necessary.
Given all that, if Shannon were doing his work today I suspect that he would not have been nearly as focused and productive as he was then. Now, he would be lucky to take to fruition just one of his many world changing ideas. At most companies, I do not think he would have been given a chance. And, from personal experience, in our constantly connected world - little of which is under our direct control - it is much harder to find the isolation needed to take a thought to completion.
For Shannon, it wasn't about achieving fame or making money. It was about solving problems.
Next year I am resolved to not forget Claude Shannon's birthday. I will celebrate not only the fact that he existed but also the fact that he was born then and not now. I have just put a note in my Google Calendar for April 30, 2016 with the following reminder to myself: "Today is Claude's birthday. To celebrate, go out and come up with some ideas that will change the world." And despite all the distractions that the connected environment imposes on my attention, I will dedicate myself to working on at least one new idea, world-changing or not.
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One reason that Shannon could not be as productive today is because they've taken some of the fun out of being productive. As I understand it, Claude and his buddy Ed Thorpe would go to Vegas and make quite a bit of money as they perfected the technique of card counting that is now illegal. Didn't Shannon develop one of the first wearable computers to help even the odds in Vegas?
Claude was a great character and brilliant. So much of what I do is based ultimately on his work. I'm not exactly longing for the days of the AT&T monopoly, but so many great things came out of Bell Labs.
I don't think I'll be reading this book, though. "Chaos", by the same author, is typical pop-science literature: a math book with absolutely no math in it.