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The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 1, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2011: In a sense, The Information is a book about everything, from words themselves to talking drums, writing and lexicography, early attempts at an analytical engine, the telegraph and telephone, ENIAC, and the ubiquitous computers that followed. But that's just the "History." The "Theory" focuses on such 20th-century notables as Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener, Alan Turing, and others who worked on coding, decoding, and re-coding both the meaning and the myriad messages transmitted via the media of their times. In the "Flood," Gleick explains genetics as biology's mechanism for informational exchange--Is a chicken just an egg's way of making another egg?--and discusses self-replicating memes (ideas as different as earworms and racism) as information's own evolving meta-life forms. Along the way, readers learn about music and quantum mechanics, why forgetting takes work, the meaning of an "interesting number," and why "[t]he bit is the ultimate unsplittable particle." What results is a visceral sense of information's contemporary precedence as a way of understanding the world, a physical/symbolic palimpsest of self-propelled exchange, the universe itself as the ultimate analytical engine. If Borges's "Library of Babel" is literature's iconic cautionary tale about the extreme of informational overload, Gleick sees the opposite, the world as an endlessly unfolding opportunity in which "creatures of the information" may just recognize themselves. --Jason Kirk
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In 1948, Bell Laboratories announced the invention of the electronic semiconductor and its revolutionary ability to do anything a vacuum tube could do but more efficiently. While the revolution in communications was taking these steps, Bell Labs scientist Claude Shannon helped to write a monograph for them, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, in which he coined the word bit to name a fundamental unit of computer information. As bestselling author Gleick (Chaos) astutely argues, Shannon's neologism profoundly changed our view of the world; his brilliant work introduced us to the notion that a tiny piece of hardware could transmit messages that contained meaning and that a physical unit, a bit, could measure a quality as elusive as information. Shannon's story is only one of many in this sprawling history of information. With his brilliant ability to synthesize mounds of details and to tell rich stories, Gleick leads us on a journey from one form of communicating information to another, beginning with African tribes' use of drums and including along the way scientists like Samuel B. Morse, who invented the telegraph; Norbert Wiener, who developed cybernetics; and Ada Byron, the great Romantic poet's daughter, who collaborated with Charles Babbage in developing the first mechanical computer. Gleick's exceptional history of culture concludes that information is indeed the blood, the fuel, and the vital principle on which our world runs. (Apr.)
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Top Customer Reviews
Gleick, a science journalist and chronicler of physics provides interesting background material and simple enough explanations for anyone who wishes to learn about the areas of information theory that influence our times, technologies and businesses. He also gives enough detail for the interested undergraduate student whose field is not primarily in the sciences. But, the unification of science, phenomena, history and biography is also of considerable interest to those like myself who have extensive training in the "information sciences" but seek a wider context for their previously acquired knowledge.
One slight criticism, I have for this otherwise excellent and comprehensive review of the theory of information and its history, is in the area of its relation to physics and the structure of the world (universe). The relationship and application of information theory to physical phenomena is a theory first espoused by Konrad Zuse, a German computer pioneer and Edward Fredkin the proponent of "digital physics". Given that Gleick's attraction and interest for information theory was probably sparked by his study of the history and explanation of physical phenomena, and his penchant for biography I would have expected more background on these explorers of the nature of physical reality as information.
This excellent history of "information science" is a must read for all who seek to understand the phenomena and technologies of the coming century.
--Ira Laefsky, MSE/MBA
Information Technology Consultant and Researcher
Formerly on the Senior Technical Staff of Arthur D. Little, Inc and Digital Equipment Corporation
Unfortunately the rest of the book falls far short of this strong standard. Glieck attempts to tackle too much, offering forgettable takes on topics including dictionaries, telegraphs, Charles Babbage, Wikipedia, memes, and information surfeit. These topics are not well-anchored to the central topic of information theory, and serve to muddle the work. But most disappointingly, the chapters on biology (Ch. 10) and quantum physics (Ch. 13) leave a ton to be desired. Glieck barely scratches the surface of the application of information theory to biology (particularly neuroscience), and the discussion of quantum information begs many more questions to be answered. What Glieck does introduce about these topics is disjointed and in need of serious editing. For instance, Glieck introduces Christopher Fuchs and quantum information theory, but before the discussion really goes anywhere, he shifts to a cursory discussion of black holes and information before shifting to an equally vacuous discussion of quantum computation and teleportation.
Thus, I can only half-recommend this book. There are parts I strongly recommend (Ch. 9,12), parts that are pretty good (Ch. 6-8), parts that are tangential and forgettable (roughly half), and other parts that are very disappointing and in need of serious expansion (Ch. 10,13).
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