A Mind at Play
This is a book about Claude Shannon. If you are thinking “Claude who?” you are not alone. His name was not familiar to me. In fact, I pulled out The Innovatorsby Walter Isaacson to make sure he had been covered in that book about the history of the digital revolution. He had been. This is a book that extracts one person out of the recent history of minds who created our current digital age and gives him the focus he deserves. The subtitle of this book states that Shannon invented the information age. The authors set to prove that it is true.
I loved reading this book. It had a similar feel to Walter Isaacson’s book on Da Vinci or Richard Feynman’s book about himself in that you come into contact with someone who was “relentlessly curious.” It was also challenging at times. Claude Shannon worked on complex problems and the authors did their best to describe these problems and solutions. I had to go quite slow in those sections.
This book chronicles the life and ideas of Claude Shannon. It is divided into three sections:
- His early life
- Mid-life and major ideas/publications
- Late years
What I Learned About Claude Shannon
Claude Shannon showed that any type of information could be turned into bits (one bit is the amount of info that results from a choice between two equally likely options, i.e. true/false, 0/1) and transmitted the same way and perfectly accurately.
Shannon’s impact on the information age can best be summed up in this quote by his colleague Robert Gallagher:
Up until that time, everyone thought that communication was involved in trying to find ways of communicating written language, spoken language, pictures, video, and all of these different things—that all of these would require different ways of communicating. Claude said no, you can turn all of them into binary digits. and then you can find ways of communicating the binary digits.
That is how Shannon ushered in the information age. He didn’t create the hardware or software (although he tinkered endlessly). Instead, he created the mindset necessary (and to that point, pretty much nonexistent) to usher in the digital age. Or, more succinctly:
Consider him not only as a distant forefather of the digital era, but as one of the great creative generalists of the twentieth century: not solely as someone who laid the foundation of the Information Age, but as someone who trained a powerful intellect on topics of deep interest, and continued to do so beyond the point of short-term practicality.
Here are some other amazing things I learned about Shannon:
- he could delve into a new field, master the terminology and ideas within a year, and then produce ground-breaking work in something he knew nothing about just a year before
- he was immensely introverted and humble. Late in life, he had crippling stage fright and had trouble giving speeches
- he was more interested in new ideas than on capitalizing on old ones
- he was a man whose ideas were so revolutionary that it took a while for colleagues to understand “the bomb” that had just gone off
- he was a man whose intelligence was courted by secret agencies during wartime, respected by contemporaries like Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, and John von Neumann, and sought after at institutions such as MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Bell Labs, and The Eugenics Record Office
- he was a jazz lover, who to clear his mind, would put in jazz albums and then improvise to the music with his clarinet
- he would would drop in on the chess clubs in Washington Square and dance the jitterbug in Harlem
In the Acknowledgements section of the book, the authors describe their approach to Claude Shannon as follows:
A book like this is written downward when it’s the work of an expert, straining to send a decipherable message to the rest of us without dumbing down, struggling to remember what it must have been like to be a novice. A book like this is written upward when it’s the work of learners, struggling to communicate what they are learning, as part of the very process of learning it.
They took the Upward approach. They continue:
…we began with the nagging sense that there is something harmful in using without understanding, or at least trying to understand.
I love that. We live in a very complex digital age that’s hard to grasp. But, it’s important that we try, and books like this can help in understanding the historic shifts and the people involved to lead us where we are today. Any device you are using to read this owes a debt of gratitude and understanding to Claude Shannon.
My one critique of the book is that I think the authors could have gone into more depth about what it meant for Claude to take things from analog to digital. They covered the basics, but how do 0s and 1s create a song? How do 0s and 1s come together to create an image or create a feature-length movie?
I was reminded of the following other Books of Titans books while reading A Mind at Play:
- Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – in the discussion about randomness in the stock market and with information
- Leonard da Vinci by Walter Isaacson – covering a relentlessly curious person
- Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson – covering a relentlessly curious person
- Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman – covering a relentlessly curious person
- Heraclitean Fire – covering a man of many interests in the area of science
- The Art of Learning – discussions and interest in chess
One Last Thought
This book brings up the question of focus vs variety that comes up a lot in these Books of Titans books. Should you focus on a niche or spread yourself across a variety of interests? What will be more lucrative? What will be more enjoyable? For a while, it seemed like the “riches in the niches” crowd was winning. But Claude Shannon proves there is another way, one that oftentimes leads to drastically new insights in a given field:
In these days, when there is a tendency to specialize so closely, it is well for us to be reminded that the possibilities of being at once broad and deep did not pass with Leonard da Vinci or even Benjamin Franklin.
Another Podcast Episode
The fine folks at the Hidden Forces Podcast interviewed Jimmy Soni and this episode was awesome. I had to listen to it twice. Some real gems here: