The life of the man called “the father of information theory.”
Claude Shannon (1916-2001) made a contribution of signal importance to the modern world when he was only 21: he divined that instead of using mechanical switches, a modern computer would better employ electrical switches that, quite apart from simply controlling electrical flow, could also, “in principle, perform a passable imitation of a brain.” That is, a machine could be designed to use logic. This scientific insight, write former Huffington Post managing editor Soni and journalist/speechwriter Goodman, co-authors of Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar (2012), ranks among the most important of the 20th century. Shannon went on to work in wartime cryptography and met fellow mathematician Alan Turing, but each was so constrained by security clearances that they could not compare notes and do something even bigger and better than Enigma and other projects. This account lacks a little of the spark and scientific depth of, say, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, but it covers the bases well. The authors write fluently, for instance, of how Boolean logic influenced Shannon’s discovery: “And because Boole had shown how to resolve logic into a series of binary, true-false decisions, any system capable of representing binaries has access to the entire logical universe he described.” They go on to describe some of Shannon’s later discoveries, including a kind of algebra of genetics that might have been too much ahead of its time, as well as his considerable eccentricities. Shannon spent much of his later life tinkering rather than producing work approaching his youthful contributions. Still, readers will be intrigued by a mad scientist who rode the halls of Bell Labs atop a unicycle while juggling, a feat at which he did not excel.
A welcome and inspiring account of a largely unsung hero—unsung because, the authors suggest, he accomplished something so fundamental that it’s difficult to imagine a world without it.