- A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni, Rob Goodman
by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. xv + 366 pages. $27.00 hardcover
Historians of information spend a lot of time thinking about how humans have created, compiled, and used information in its many guises. Claude Shannon, however, went a step further and used remarkable genius to investigate just exactly what happens with the fundamental unit of information—the message that is sent and the message that is received. In his seminal article for the Bell System Technical Journal in 1948, Shannon boiled the whole process down to a very simple diagram, now familiar to many information professionals.1 From this disarmingly modest set of lines and boxes the entire theory of modern-day digital communication can be described at its most foundational level.
Though it is a seemingly simple concept at first blush, Shannon devoted seventy-five pages of densely argued text to flesh out his theory of communication, which relied heavily on advanced mathematics beyond the reach of all but those with the appropriate technical background. Thankfully, Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, neither of whom has a background in math or science, have produced a book written for those of us in the humanities curious about the role that significant scientific breakthroughs have had on the course of history—in this case the history of information theory and its impact on how information is encoded.2
Basing their book on secondary sources as well as the personal papers of Shannon and interviews with his family and colleagues, Soni and Goodman have crafted an accessible study of this very bright man who traveled in the highest scientific circles during and after World War II, when some of the most significant advances in cryptography and early computer programming and design were taking place. Shannon worked with Vannevar Bush, interacted with Alan Turing, was a colleague of Norbert Wiener, and associated with dozens of other prominent thinkers while working for Bell Labs and later as a faculty member at MIT.
The book’s subtitle pays homage to Shannon’s lifelong habit of continually asking how things worked and tinkering with things—large and small—that intrigued him. As a result, he developed an early computerized chess game and was endlessly fascinated by juggling or riding his unicycle. At one level, he approached life in a very childlike manner, [End Page 377] operating without preconceived notions about the way things worked. There is little doubt, however, that his was one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century, a mind that, ironically and sadly, fell victim to Alzheimer’s disease toward the end of his life.
For historians of information and the theories that undergird it, Soni and Goodman’s biography is a worthy contribution to the literature surrounding Claude Shannon and his role as the father of information theory.
1. Claude E. Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Bell System Technical Journal 27, no. 3 (1948): 379–423, 623–56 (the diagram is on page 381).
2. For a good summary of Shannon’s theory of communication, see James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011), especially chapters 7 and 8. Also quite valuable is Erico Marui Guizzo’s master’s thesis: “The Essential Message: Claude Shannon and the Making of Information Theory” (master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003).