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A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age Hardcover – July 18, 2017
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“Claude Shannon wrote the ‘the Magna Carta of the Information Age’ and conceived of the basic concept underlying all digital computers. Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman offer a long overdue, insightful, and humane portrait of this eccentric and towering genius.” (Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, The Innovators, and Einstein)
“An exceptionally elegant and authoritative portrait of a man of few words but many big ideas. Soni and Goodman’s elucidations of Claude Shannon’s theories are gems of conciseness and clarity, and their case for placing him in the same pantheon as Turing and von Neumann is compelling.” (Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award)
“Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman have written a fascinating, readable, and necessary biography of a true American genius. This is the book that finally explains Claude Shannon’s character and career as well as the context of his extraordinary life and times.” (Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation)
“An avid biography full of freewheeling curiosity and fun. It’s a pleasure getting to know you, Claude Shannon!” (Siobhan Roberts, author of Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway)
“Shannon was to information and communication what Newton was to physics. By following his curiosity through the playground of science, he discovered mathematical laws that govern our digital age. The Shannon I worked with comes alive in these pages.” (Edward O. Thorp, author of A Man For All Markets and Beat The Dealer)
“At last a biography of a man who shaped the Information Age we live in, and a thinker who combined the playfulness of Richard Feynman with the genius of Albert Einstein. For anyone interested in living both a playful and a thoughtful life, there is no better model than Claude Shannon—and no better writing team than Soni and Goodman to have written the book on it.” (Ryan Holiday, bestselling author of The Daily Stoic and The Obstacle Is The Way)
“A brilliant treatment of the life of Claude Shannon, one of the 20th century’s most remarkable scientists in the field of information technology. This giant of a man launched the digital world we now inhabit, but his not the household name it deserves to be. Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman have corrected this with their superb new book presenting Shannon’s amazing personal and professional life.” (Professor Leonard Kleinrock, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, UCLA, and winner, 2007 National Medal of Science)
“We are familiar with the bright young stars who brought us the web, Google and Facebook, but this engaging book demystifies the digital communications revolution and shows how it really began! In telling the story of Claude Shannon, Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman have given a fascinating introduction to the ideas and the people who made our digital age possible.” (Robyn Arianrhod, author of Seduced by Logic: Émilie Du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution)
“In this fine biography of Claude Shannon, Soni and Goodman make accessible the origins of digital communications while revealing how engineers think deeply not only about things but through things; it was through tinkering that Shannon was able to bring us the modern digital world.” (W. Bernard Carlson, Professor and Chair, Engineering & Society Department, University of Virginia)
“The biography of one of the towering geniuses of the 20th century we have been awaiting for decades. In this veritable labor of love by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, one has on offer an enthralling and beautifully rendered portrait of Claude Shannon, the mathematician, the engineer, the inventor, the tinkerer, and, above all, the enigmatic man who became the intellectual father of the vital lifeblood of our age: information.” (Professor Sergio Verdu, Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering at Princeton University)
About the Author
Jimmy Soni has served as an editor at The New York Observer and the Washington Examiner and as managing editor of Huffington Post. He is a former speechwriter, and his written work and commentary have appeared in Slate, The Atlantic, and CNN, among other outlets. He is a graduate of Duke University. With Rob Goodman, he is the coauthor of Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, and A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age.
Rob Goodman is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and a former congressional speechwriter. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, Politico, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. His scholarly work has appeared in History of Political Thought, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, and The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. With Jimmy Soni, he is the coauthor of Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, and A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age.
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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.
=== The Good Stuff ===
* I don’t suppose there is any such thing as an “intimate portrait” of Claude Shannon. He simply wasn’t that type of man. Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman do about as credible a job as possible of peering through the veil, but much of the “personal” side of Shannon come from indirect sources, and is based on a mix of conjecture and guesstimates.
* You can’t understand Shannon’s genius without understanding some of the concepts of Electrical and Computer engineering. The authors do a nice job of explaining enough of the basics in layman’s language so that at least the general sense of Shannon’s brilliance comes through. I am an electrical engineer, and was familiar with Shannon’s work, but even I was impressed with how far and wide his skills took him. For example, Shannon took a bit of a vacation to work in a biology project or two, and came close to some fundamental breakthroughs in analyzing genetics.
*Probably the most interesting part of Shannon’s life were his many interests. It was not unusual to see him pedaling through Bell Labs on a custom-made unicycle, or one built for especially for juggling, and he was noted for spending time on music, analyzing chess games, or any other of his many hobbies. An interesting sidebar to the story is that this was tolerated at Bell Labs-almost as a recognition for the great work he had done early in his career.
* The author’s try to give a balanced look at Shannon’s life. It was not a completely happy life, and perhaps saddest of all, his mental faculties left him before he had a chance to truly see the digital and internet age which his work enabled.
=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===
* I don’t envy the authors the task of creating a biography of Shannon suitable readable by a non-technical audience. This forces them into some strange compromises of trying to explain technical concepts in such a way to be simple enough for everyone to understand, but not so tedious as to alienate more techy readers. At times, they were more successful at this than others, but it is a fine line which they occasionally crossed. For example, technically-oriented readers, who I suspect is the true audience for this book, might be put off by explanations of simple switch-networks.
* Much of Shannon’s genius was his ability to work in both the theoretical and real-life world. The authors spend quite a bit of time discussing this, but I think shortchange Shannon a bit in describing just how rare and valuable this trait is.
=== Summary ===
I admit, I was hooked before I started the book. Claude Shannon is a man who amazes me, and I knew a bit about him from previous reading. He was an amazing man, and it would be tough to write an uninteresting biography of him. The authors did an excellent job, and handled a difficult subject and complicated material quite well. I would recommend the book to any “geek”, or anyone with an interest in how the technology of computers and advanced electronics got to where it is.
=== Disclaimer ===
I was able to read an advance copy through the courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.
The book seamlessly tells two stories - that of Shannon's work and of Shannon's life. There are obviously tradeoffs - this is not a technical treatise nor pure storytelling. It is a meticulously researched mix and it's a better book for that combination.
The authors do us a service in taking both the man and his family as seriously as his work, I think. There's a lot to learn from his contributions to information theory. These areas are covered in a manner that makes it easy to consume. There's a lot to learn from his life. These areas are delivered in a manner that makes it easy to relate.
I read Shannon's paper in my youth on information theory, it had a profound impact then and now. It still stands as a paper that changed my perception of what communication is. This book gives you insight into his life and his works - I recommend it.
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Too much American self promotion.Read more