One of the parlour games played by intellectuals and academic, as well as those who like to think of themselves as such, is which famous historical figures would you invite to a cocktail or dinner party and why. One premise for the game being, which historical figure or figures would you most like to meet and converse with. As a historian of mostly Early Modern science I am a bit wary of this question, as many of the people I study or have studied in depth have very unpleasant sides to their characters, as I have commented in the past in more than one blog post. However in my other guise, as a historian of formal or mathematical logic and the history of the computer there is actually one figure, who I would have been more than pleased to have met and that is the mathematician and engineer, Claude Shannon.
For those who might not know who Claude Shannon was, he was a man who made two very major contributions to the development of the computers on which I am typing this post and on which you are reading it. The first was when he at the age of twenty-one, in what has been described as the most important master’s thesis written in the twentieth century, combined Boolean algebra with electric circuit design thus rationalising the whole process and simplifying the design of complex circuitry beyond measure. The second was sixteen years later when he in his A Mathematical Theory of Communication, building, it should be added, on the work of others, basically laid the foundations of our so-called information age. His work laid out how to transmit digital signals through circuitry without loss of information. He is regarded as the über-guru of information theory, to quote Wikipedia:
Information theory studies the quantification, storage, and communication of information. It was originally proposed by Claude E. Shannon in 1948 to find fundamental limits on signal processing and communication operations such as data compression, in a landmark paper entitled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”.
Given that the period we live in is called both the computer age and the information age, it is somewhat surprising that the first full-length biography of Shannon, A Mind at Play, only appeared this year. Having somewhat foolishly said that I would hold a public lecture in November on Vannevar Bush, who was Shannon’s master’s thesis supervisor, and Shannon, I have been reading Soni’s and Goodman’s Shannon biography, which I have to say I enjoyed immensely.
This is a full length, full width biography that covers both the live of the human being as well as the intellectual achievements of the engineer-mathematician. Shannon couldn’t decide which to study as an undergraduate so he did a double BSc in both engineering and mathematics. This dual course of studies is what led to that extraordinary master’s thesis. Having studied Boolean algebra in his maths courses Shannon realised that he could apply it to rationalise and simplify electrical switching when working, as a postgrad, on the switching circuits for Bush’s analogue computer, the differential analyser. It’s one of those things that seems obvious with hindsight but required the right ‘prepared mind’, Shannon’s, to realise it in the first place. It is a mark of his character that he shrugged off any genius on his part in conceiving the idea, claiming that he had just been lucky.
Shannon’s other great contribution, his treatise on communication and information transmission, came out of his work at Bell Labs as a cryptanalyst during World War II. The analysis of language that he developed in order to break down codes led him to a more general consideration of the transmission of information with languages out of which he then laid down the foundations of his theories on communication and information.
Soni’s and Goodman’s and volume deals well with the algebraic calculus for circuit design and I came away with a much clearer picture of a subject about which I already knew quite a lot. However I found myself working really hard on their explanation of Shannon’s information theory but this is largely because it is not the easiest subject in the world to understand.
The rest of the book contains much of interest about the man and his work and I came away with the impression of a fascinating, very deep thinking, modest man who also possessed a, for me, very personable sense of humour. One aspect that appealed to me was that Shannon was a unicyclist and a juggler, who also loved toys, hence the title of my review. As I said at the beginning Claude Shannon is a man I would have liked to have met for a long chat over a cup of tea.
On the whole I found the biography well written and light to read, except for the technical details of Shannon information theory, and it contains a fairly large collection of black and white photos detailing all of Shannon’s life. As far as the notes are concerned we have the worst of all possible solutions, hanging endnotes; that is endnotes, with page numbers, to which there is no link or reference in the text. There is an extensive and comprehensive bibliography as well as a good index. This is a biography that I would whole-heartedly recommend to anybody who might be interested in the man or his area of work or both.
 Jimmy Soni & Rob Goodman, A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, Simon & Shuster, New York etc., 2017