A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

Posted by jack_miller | Published 6 months ago

With 150 ratings

By: Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman

Purchased At: $31.49

Winner of the Neumann Prize for the History of Mathematics

**Named a best book of the year by Bloomberg and Nature**

**'Best of 2017' by The Morning Sun**

"We owe Claude Shannon a lot, and Soni & Goodman’s book takes a big first step in paying that debt." —San Francisco Review of Books

"Soni and Goodman are at their best when they invoke the wonder an idea can instill. They summon the right level of awe while stopping short of hyperbole." —Financial Times

"Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman make a convincing case for their subtitle while reminding us that Shannon never made this claim himself." —The Wall Street Journal

"Soni and Goodman have done their research...A Mind at Play reveals the remarkable human behind some of the most important theoretical and practical contributions to the information age." —Nature

"A Mind at Play shows us that you don't need to be a genius to learn from a genius. Claude Shannon's inventive, vibrant life demonstrates how vital the act of play can be to making the most of work." —Inc.

“A charming account of one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished scientists…Readers will enjoy this portrait of a modern-day Da Vinci.” —Fortune

In their second collaboration, biographers Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman present the story of Claude Shannon—one of the foremost intellects of the twentieth century and the architect of the Information Age, whose insights stand behind every computer built, email sent, video streamed, and webpage loaded. Claude Shannon was a groundbreaking polymath, a brilliant tinkerer, and a digital pioneer. He constructed the first wearable computer, outfoxed Vegas casinos, and built juggling robots. He also wrote the seminal text of the digital revolution, which has been called “the Magna Carta of the Information Age.” In this elegantly written, exhaustively researched biography, Soni and Goodman reveal Claude Shannon’s full story for the first time. With unique access to Shannon’s family and friends, A Mind at Play brings this singular innovator and always playful genius to life.
For years, I have been reading references to Claude Shannon because of his involvement in so many critical developments in science, communications, Bell Labs, and even the stock market. About his sense of humor or his riding a unicycle through Bell Labs – while juggling (a favorite hobby). And about his groundbreaking, earth-shaking realization that all communication, from voice to music to documents to photos – is all data and could be treated the same way. Without this insight, I could not post this review today. But there was no way to get my fill of Claude Shannon – no biographies or documentaries of an American genius who lived until 2001! A Mind At Play begins to fill this yawning gap (and it seems a documentary is finally in the works as well).

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.

David Wineberg

- moses_howard

A superb biography of a genius. It covers his entire history from his technical peaks to his tragic end in Alzheimer's disease. Wish it would have been possible that his personally imagined funeral could have been celebrated. The documentation of his life is deep and includes many photographs. The flow is perfectly paced and detailed. Enjoyed his lecture attended by Einstein in pursuit of tea and cookies at Princeton.

If you ever puzzled through A Mathematical Theory of Communications it is a treat to see the man behind it's genius.

Thank you Jimmy Soni and Robert Goodman for your great work!

- gracelynn_morgan

This is a book worth reading, my sense is it captures the essense of Claude Shannon's life and achievements. More importantly it does so whilst respecting his innate humble nature.

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.

- silas_martin

I'm disappointed by this book; Shannon's revolutionary work is hardly delved into, and its mentions mostly pertain to the praise it received. The few attempts at explaining the basic building blocks of information theory are extremely light, clumsy and hardly scratch the surface of the topic. I understand that the authors are not mathematicians, but you can't write a book about someone famous without explaining what made him famous. Imagine not knowing what a phone or a computer is, and writing a book about Steve Jobs without ever explaining what Apple's products are.
The reader is left instead with a collection of historical facts and annectodes about Shannon's life. A few are interesting as they shed light on Shannon's personalty. Most are in my opinion a pretext from the authors to show their work, and hardly contain any informative value (ironic isn't it).

- cole_anderson

One of my critiques of the technology industry is that there's not a rich body of work around the intellectual history of the space. This is starting to change, and this book by Soni and Goodman is an important addition. Shannon's a fascinating character and his personality comes through with various episodes, many concerning his family. Those are glimpses into his life that we've never had before, in fact, my general awareness of Shannon has transformed into specific knowledge - and it's compelling reading.

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.

- emmalyn_ward

Loved reading this biography of Claude Shannon.

On top of writing a proper biography that has clearly had the benefit of significant support from its subject’s immediate family, the authors have produced a tremendous profile of Shannon’s character and personality. Furthermore, this book succeeds 100% in making the connection between his scientific achievements and his personal traits, such as his curiosity and modesty, to say nothing of his mischievousness.

On a personal level, I found it interesting that he did not have much time for the “New Math” that his children were taught in school. As an amateur mathematician I find school math to be too much oriented toward “recipes,” but perhaps I must bow to America’s most intuitive tinkerer, father of the highly abstract communication theory and godfather of the connected era we live in. Also quite funny that he dealt in stocks.

This is not a “professional biography” in the style of “Birth of a Theorem,” but the authors make a decent fist of covering that angle well for the layman. The technical bits that are explained are explained very well. For example, the authors walk you both through an example of the application of Boolean arithmetic to electrical circuits and through the relative lack of randomness in everyday language.

My one gripe is that some of Shannon’s highest and most enduring achievements (for example his theorems on the limits of communication) are mentioned only in passing, perhaps because they are difficult to convey in everyday language. At a minimum, and for the sake of completeness, they ought to be in an appendix.

- jana_martinez

Shannon was to say the least eccentric not the average inventor hero, though he was well lauded in his time. The book is very basic on the technicalities of Information Theory and would not be a a good primer in that respect. It's a description, the obtainable facts, of his public life. He was such a singular man that it would be impossible to get deep into his psyche or psychology, though there are some reasonable inferences. The book presents Shannon's considerable achievement of pulling all the technical strands together to enable modern virtual life.

- henrik_smith

Just finished this book, and I have to say it was highly enjoyable. Brilliant sources and historical references. Do yourself a favour and treat yourself to a copy of this book. What a Magnificent man (and kudos to his wife Betty and child Peggy), brilliant stories, and thank you for a chapter on one of my heroes Norbert Wiener what fantastic historical events this book covers with a modern genius that was Shannon of our recent times.

- alessandro_hill

Good Quality, Would repeat

- lina_mitchell

A long overdue biography of the man who shaped our modern world.

- dario_kim

If you want to know about Claude Shannon who wrote a seminal article on information theory in 1948 this is a great book. There is background about his growing up, his career, his contributions to the development of information theory and computation more generally, and about his professional and academic career. Not only that, I learned some background history about information theory in the role of Harry Nyquist and Ralph Hartley. The writing style is engaging and informative. I also found out that Shannon wrote a 10 page paper on problem solving. It is available in a collection of his works that can be found on archive.org. You might enjoy reading that too. Kudos to the authors.

- donald_mendoza

Provides background on a brilliant tinker and man. We should know more about one of the brilliant thinkers that opened up our present world of communication, data gathering and social media. Bell Labs must have been a wondrous place for cross pollination and learning. Too bad it has shorten its horizons and become more oriented toward short term commercial success. But is a prime example of what made North America a brilliant place where merit was able to shine. Too bad we are no longer as open and risk taking as we once were. Now it seems we are more interesting in protecting our status and what we have rather than finding or developing more.

- norah_scott

Es una biografía un poco incompleta, porque no dedica mucho espacio a hablar de la persona, mientras que dedica páginas y página a colocar a Claude Shannon es su contexto y explicar sus hallazgos al profano, no siempre con buena fortuna, llegando a hacerse algo aburrido. También es cierto que no era tarea fácil.

- malcolm_patel

I didn’t like how they described certain things. Religion should not be used to describe someone who wasn’t even a practising member of the faith. To posthumously label someone something they weren’t is propaganda. scientists don’t deserve to be used like that.

- gracelyn_hill

Incredible story about an incredible mind.

- carolina_flores

to understand how a genius mind work, so humble and full of experiments in real time. very fascinating story

- kaelyn_thomas

The book has been written by two guys who are experts in speech writing. As such, it reads easily and with pleasure, insisting on unconventional but rather attractive aspects of Shannon's personality.

Unfortunately, after a careful reading of the book, I still do not have any idea of what is the Information Theory, which is, after all, Shannon's major contribution to modern science.

I suppose that the title, A mind at play, must be taken in a somewhat restrictive sense.

- mason_miller

Me enteré del libro por un blog post de los autores y me encantó. Lo leí de un tirón, casi.

- quentin_hill

Very good read

- elsie_smith

Muy excelente. Very complete history. The facts are interesting for all interested in gambling and odds. I do recommend this book.

- will_myers

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