Claude Shannon

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I don’t imagine Claude Shannon was ever bored, not with the intellect of Einstein and the playful personality of a circus clown. He was the unicycling, juggling Bell Labs genius who co-created the first wearable and has rightly earned the title of the “Father of the Information Age.” (So, yes, we have some specific to blame.) The unicycle was a birthday gift from the scientist’s wife, Betty, who would struggle to come up with ideas for presents for her spouse, because what do you get for the man who has everything-–in his head?

Was mostly joking above about Shannon being to blame for modern problems related to information, but you have to wonder what he would have made of our ubiquitous surveillance, Russian bots, Fake News and some of the other ghosts he helped unloose.

Shannon was a notable figure in The Idea Factory but now Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman have dedicated an entire volume to him, publishing A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. The authors just conducted a Reddit AMA. One exchange:


What can I take away from how Shannon thinks, works, and lives and apply today to think, work, or live better?

Jimmy Soni: 

That’s actually one of the most interesting things about his life and work: There’s a lot for us to take away from it. Sometimes when you’re think of figures like Einstein or Turing, they seem like they’re on Mount Olympus–and that all of us mere mortals can study them from afar but not embrace the way they did their wok because it was so unique.

Shannon’s work had similar scientific force and impact, but he was also down-to-earth. A few of the lessons that stood out to us:

1) Learn to be by yourself and in quiet places — Shannon was an introvert, but we think contributed to his scientific imagination. He was comfortable being alone and thinking hard for long stretches of time. He also did this in places that lent themselves to that kind of thought: spartan bachelor apartments, an office whose door was usually closed. We can’t imagine him trying to bang out information theory at Starbucks.

2) Study many disciplines — Yes, Shannon was a train mathematician and engineer. But he was an equally skilled machinist and gadgeteer, one of the early pioneers of artificial intelligence, a unicyclist, a juggler, and a lot of other things. He had an omnivorous curiosity and it served him well. He was able to use all these disparate things to create the work that he did.

3) Don’t worry about external recognition so much — Shannon could barely be bothered about awards and honors. He found them amusing diversions from the work. Sometimes his wife or a mentor had to force him to actually go to the trouble of accepting awards. And even when he did, he did it with levity. (For instance, he hung all the honorary degrees he won from a rotating tie rack!). Why does this matter? Because he was running his own race. He wasn’t trying to go after a specific award or honor, so he was free to do what he did his entire life: let his curiosity wander to the places it wanted to go.

That’s just some of the lessons. We wrote more of them up here, and happy to go into any of these in further depth.

Let me add one more that I think about a lot: work with your hands. This was something Shannon did for basically his entire life. He would take things apart, put them back together, and see if he could improve on how they worked. Even at the very end stages of his life, when he was in a nursing home battling Alzheimer’s, he would take apart his walker and try to imagine a better design for it.

Why does that matter? Because I think it gave him a quality that one engineer described as “not only the ability to think about things but through things.” It was a powerful part of his work–and I think it’s something we might take for granted in our own.

My guess is that the problem-solving and tactile pieces of working with your hands offer some brain-enhancing effects. But I also think there’s a broader point about appreciation and craftsmanship. There’s a great book on the topic called Shopclass as Soulcraft that’s worth checking out.

I think Shannon could anticipate future robotics because he didn’t just write papers, he built robots. He could imagine an artificially intelligent world because he built an artificially intelligent mouse. I don’t know how to reclaim that sort of thing exactly, but I know it’s a powerful part of what made him who he was.•

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Edward O. Thorp, a mathematics professor who lives to bring down the house-the house being a casino–has focused a sizable portion of his career on mathematical probability in betting games. He also created, in tandem with Bell Labs unicyclist Claude Shannon, what is arguably the first wearable computer. The device, which was contained in a shoe or a cigarette pack, could markedly improve a gambler’s chance at the roulette wheel, though the bugs were never completely worked out. From a 1998 conference:

“The first wearable computer was conceived in 1955 by the author to predict roulette, culminating in a joint effort at M.I.T. with Claude Shannon in 1960-61. The final operating version was rested in Shannon’s basement home lab in June of 1961. The cigarette pack sized analog device yielded an expected gain of +44% when betting on the most favored ‘octant’. The Shannons and Thorps tested the computer in Las Vegas in the summer of 1961. The predictions there were consistent with the laboratory expected gain of 44% but a minor hardware problem deferred sustained serious betting. They kept the method and the existence of the computer secret until 1966.”

Thorp appeared on To Tell the Truth in 1964. He didn’t discuss wearables but his book about other methods to break the bank. Amusing that NYC radio host John Gambling played one of the impostors.

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Information Theory genius Claude Shannon, who loved pogo sticks and juggling, also created this nifty gadget in 1952,


I mentioned Jon Gertner’s Bell Lab history, The Idea Factory, a couple of times recently. For me, the most interesting parts are the passages about Information Theory mastermind Claude Shannon. As the author points out, Shannon’s co-workers were often years ahead of the curve in their work, but Shannon himself was working decades in the future. In addition to knowing what the world would look like generations in advance, Shannon, a wisp of a man, was deeply eccentric and fond of games and parlor tricks. He designed the first computer chess program and the initial computerized mouse that “learned” more every time it went through a maze. (Like this, but 60 years ago.) His wife, Betty, was always challenged when choosing a Christmas present for him because what do you get for the man who has everything–in his head? An excerpt from Gertner’s book, which recalls how the scientist turned Bell Labs into a fucking clown car:

“One year, Betty gave him a unicycle as a gift. Shannon quickly began riding; then he began building his own unicycles, challenging himself to see how small he could make one that could still be ridden. One evening after dinner at home in Morristown, Claude began to spontaneously juggle three balls, and his efforts soon won him some encouragement from the kids in the apartment complex. There was no reason, as far as Shannon could see, why he shouldn’t pursue his two new interests, unicycling and juggling, at Bell Labs, too. Nor was there any reason not to pursue them simultaneously. When he was in the office, Shannon would take a break from work to ride his unicycle up and down the long hallways, usually at night when the building wasn’t so busy. He would nod to passerby, unless he was juggling as he rode. Then he would be lost in concentration. When he got a pogo stick, he would go up and down the hall on that, too.

Here, then, was a picture of Claude Shannon, circa 1955, a man–slender, agile, handsome, abstracted–who rarely showed up on time for work, who often played chess or fiddled with amusing machines all day; who frequently went down the halls juggling or pogoing, and who didn’t seem to care, really, what anyone thought of him or his pursuits. He did what was interesting. He was categorized, still, as a scientist. But it seemed obvious that he had the temperament and sensibility of an artist.”

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From Freeman Dyson’s 2011 New York Review of Books piece about James Gleick’s The Information, a passage about the uncertain nature of science and knowledge in the Digital Age, the “noisiest” epoch in humankind:

“The information flood has also brought enormous benefits to science. The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.

Even physics, the most exact and most firmly established branch of science, is still full of mysteries. We do not know how much of [Claude] Shannon’s theory of information will remain valid when quantum devices replace classical electric circuits as the carriers of information. Quantum devices may be made of single atoms or microscopic magnetic circuits. All that we know for sure is that they can theoretically do certain jobs that are beyond the reach of classical devices. Quantum computing is still an unexplored mystery on the frontier of information theory. Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”

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Claude Shannon, who pretty much invented the Information Age, demonstrates one of his juggling machines in 1985.