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

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The life and times of one of the foremost intellects of the twentieth century: Claude Shannon—the neglected 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 a fleet of customized unicycles and a flamethrowing trumpet, 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.” His discoveries would lead contemporaries to compare him to Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. His work anticipated by decades the world we’d be living in today—and gave mathematicians and engineers the tools to bring that world to pass.

In this elegantly written, exhaustively researched biography, Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman reveal Claude Shannon’s full story for the first time. It’s the story of a small-town Michigan boy whose career stretched from the era of room-sized computers powered by gears and string to the age of Apple. It’s the story of the origins of our digital world in the tunnels of MIT and the “idea factory” of Bell Labs, in the “scientists’ war” with Nazi Germany, and in the work of Shannon’s collaborators and rivals, thinkers like Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Vannevar Bush, and Norbert Wiener.

And it’s the story of Shannon’s life as an often reclusive, always playful genius. With access to Shannon’s family and friends, A Mind at Play brings this singular innovator and creative genius to life.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published July 18, 2017

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Jimmy Soni

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Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews484 followers
September 29, 2017
Now this is how to write a biography! I recently read a biography of Paul Dirac that glossed over his achievements and highlighted his personal relationships. If you know anything about Dirac, you would know how absurd it is to focus on his personal relationships. The author could have at least given his achievements equal billing. In this biography, Soni brought to life all the aspects of Shannon's life-- his inner life is shown through glimpses of what Shannon thought about various things (very entertaining), family life was nicely detailed, as was his relationships with coworkers and friends. Most importantly, his work has been beautifully explained (so that anyone with a curious mind can understand it) and preserved. Shannon's mind was a mind at play indeed, and oh how brilliant a mind it was! I was moved to tears on many occasions as I relearned all the concepts that this one man brought to our existence. With his ideas, Shannon changed the face of the world itself. In the same way that Aristotle changed the way the world thought after starting civilization down the road of deductive reasoning, Shannon changed the very way we thought about everything when he realized everything was a 0 or 1, a true or false, and could be put into a logic table. Thank goodness for his obsession with Boolean algebra, which set him on a path that gave rise to information theory. I only wish Shannon could have lived long enough to see more applications of his work. The digital world of today is something I truly wish he could have witnessed.
Profile Image for Brian Clegg.
Author 166 books2,470 followers
July 3, 2017
If you are familiar with the history of computing, there are a few names that you'll know well enough biographically to turn them into real people. Babbage and Lovelace, Turing and von Neumann, Gates and Jobs. But there's one of the greats who may conjure up nothing more than a name - Claude Shannon. If Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman get this right, we're going to get to know him a lot better - and get a grip on his information theory, which sounds simple in principle, but can be difficult to get your head around.

If you haven't heard of Claude Shannon, you ought to have. He was responsible for two key parts of the theoretical foundations that lie beneath the computing and internet technology most of use everyday. Arguably, without Shannon's theory, for example, it would be impossible to slump down in front of Netflix and watch a video on demand.

I suspect one reason that Shannon's work is less familiar than it should be is that it lies buried deep in the ICT architecture. I was primarily a programmer for a number of years, but as someone writing applications - programs for people to use - I didn't have to give any thought to Shannon's theories. They were embodied by engineers at a lower level than I ever needed to access. In fact, I'm ashamed to say that when I was programming, though I could give you chapter and verse on Bill Gates, I'd never heard of Shannon, even though he was still alive back then.

What Soni and Goodman do really well is to give us a feel for Shannon, the man. The writing has an impressive ability to put is into the home town of Claude Shannon, or the corridors of Bell Labs as he rides his unicycle along them. At first glance, Shannon might seem quite similar to Richard Feynman in his combination of playfulness with amazing insight. But it soon becomes clear that Shannon was a far less likeable character - more introverted, dismissive of those he considered an intellectual inferior and with no real interest in helping his country in the war or with codebreaking, more undertaking this if and only if he could be offered something he found mentally stimulating. Soni and Goodman seem to find his obsession with juggling, unicycles and building strange contraptions endearing, but I'm not sure that's really how it come across.

I am giving this book four stars for the biographical side, which works very well, but there are some issues. One is hyperbole - there is no doubt that Shannon was a genius and made a huge contribution to our understanding of information, but we really don't need to be told how incredible he was quite as often as this book does. At one point he is compared with Einstein - with Einstein arguably coming across as the less significant of the two - this seems to miss that part of Einstein's genius was the breadth of his work from statistical mechanics through relativity to quantum physics. While Shannon's personal interests were broad, his important work lacked that range.

The bigger issue was that I had hoped for a scientific biography, but I only really got a biography with a bit of science thrown in. The coverage of Shannon's information theory was (ironically) rarely very informative. I would have loved to have had the same level of exploration of the theory as we get of the person - but it's just not there. Of course, the theory isn't ignored, with a few pages given to each of the two big breakthroughs - but there could have been a whole lot more to make what can be a difficult concept more accessible.

I ought to stress that using the term hyperbole should not in any sense reduce the importance of Shannon's work. Hearing of Shannon's initial inspiration that logic and electrical circuitry were equivalent comes across rather like Darwin (and Wallace)'s inspiration on evolution by natural selection. It appears blindingly obvious, once you are told about it, but it took a long time for anyone to do so - and it's hugely important. Shannon's second big step, which provides a generalised model for information transmission with noise and makes the whole understanding of information communication mathematical was inspirational and up there with Turing's universal computer. What's more, it has applications well outside the IT world in the way it provides a link between information and entropy. If there were a maths Nobel prize, as Soni and Goodman suggest, Shannon definitely should have won one.

This is a man we needed to find out more about - and we certainly do. I just wish there had been more detail of the science in there too.
Profile Image for George Kaslov.
96 reviews129 followers
February 12, 2021
Someone like Claude Shannon presents a real challenge to all biographers. For he was important enough to the world of mathematics, communications, computer science and engineering to deserve a biography but has led a quiet and private life to make the job of documenting his life quite difficult. Luckily in his older age he let his eccentricities loose and provided us with quite a number of amusing anecdotes. Even with this challenge the author managed to write a good biography, but it felt a bit padded at places (mostly in the first half of the book).

Now, if you really want to feel a little bit like Claude Shannon, go ahead and solve a few math puzzles just for the sheer joy of it and than proceed to make your own pointless machine (yes it's really called that and he invented it too).
Profile Image for Nelson Zagalo.
Author 9 books308 followers
March 24, 2019
Avaliação: 3.5

Claude Shannon [1916-2001] é um dos investigadores do século XX que maior impacto teve na sociedade do século XXI, contudo é praticamente desconhecido desta, e mesmo até de uma parte considerável da academia. Por isso, uma biografia sobre o seu legado — "A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age" — é algo que não podemos deixar de celebrar, mesmo quando esta vai pouco além daquilo que surge na sua entrada na Wikipedia (inglesa). Se Shannon não soa a maior parte dos ouvidos, não é porque o seu contributo foi menor do que o de Alan Turing ou Albert Einstein, mas antes porque a sua maneira de ser, introspetiva e reservada, e toda uma vida sem qualquer escândalo, fez com que passasse ao lado dos holofotes de uma das indústrias que mais depende do conhecimento por si produzido, a comunicação social, e por isso tivesse passado pela vida, ainda que contribuindo profusamente, de forma bastante despretensiosa.
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A resenha completa, com imagens e links, foi publicada no VI:
https://virtual-illusion.blogspot.com...
Profile Image for Todd N.
334 reviews231 followers
December 18, 2017
I find it more than a little upsetting that my hero Claude Shannon isn’t a household name. To paraphrase Fake Steve Jobs, “I invented the bit. Ever heard of it?”

Just like that 1919 eclipse proved Einstein’s equations were right, our entire modern digital world proves that Shannon’s equations were right.

He also laid the foundation for digital electronics by applying Boolean algebra to circuits with switches and relays in what must be the most widely cited masters thesis ever. I’ll bet it’s still the beginning of every digital circuit class.

Dr. Shannon had what every American genius needs: a first-rate mathematical mind, an engineering bent, a Midwestern upbringing with infinite amounts of free time, and access to a Land Grant college.

He also had a great mentor in Vannevar Bush, a mixture of politician, administrator, and scientist that doesn’t exist anymore today. And if he or she did exist today, I’m sure Congress would send him or her into exile immediately.

Aside from inventing the field of information theory, Shannon did all kinds of other cool stuff like early work on genetics, signal cryptography, computer chess, radar, wearable computers, stock analysis, and machine learning in the form an artificial mouse that learned a maze. (This was in from the 40s through the 80s, by the way.) He also tinkered around with inventions, making his own juggling machines, unicycles, mechanical turtle, and a trumpet that shot out flames.

So it’s about time this guy got a decent biography. (Fortunes Formula by William Poundstone is also very good and has a decent amount of Prof. Shannon in it.)

I studied some of his work on communications in college, so I was familiar with that. But I had no idea about his full career or his method of working.

I found myself taking notes on things he did (like always carrying a notebook), but then I found out that there is a talk Prof. Shannon gave on “creative thinking” in 1952. The authors posted it in a Medium article here:
https://medium.com/the-mission/a-geni... My summary of this talk are at the end of this review.

A few other random notes from this book:

* Great quote someone said about Bell Labs: “There are two kinds of researchers here. Ones being paid for what they did, and ones being paid for what they are going to do.”

* The section on mechanical analog computers that could solve differential equations was very interesting. The idea of sitting in a room all night with one listening to it whirr away on a problem seems so steampunk. It’s a forgotten cul de sac in computing history.

* I found it very interesting how the mathematicians pretty openly looked down on their military work during WWII. They found it boring and couldn’t wait to get back to real math work.

* The book uses a bunch of words to explain Markov chains without saying “Markov chains” to show redundancy in the English language. Isn’t this a thing that most people know by now? A lot of bots and automatically generated text use Markov chains, so I assumed this is a technical term that is semi-known outside of tech circles.

* Once Prof. Shannon visited Palo Alto, and he wondered how anyone got any work done because the weather is so nice.

* When Prof. Shannon’s daughter dropped a box of toothpicks, his comment to her was that it’s possible to estimate pi from the toothpicks lying randomly on the ground. Now that’s good parenting.

* Here is a link of him showing off his mechanical mouse learning the maze: https://youtu.be/vPKkXibQXGA

Highly recommended. Written by non-technical authors, but they obviously did their homework.

—-
Creative Thinking

Three requirements to be “up the curve” and among the few people who create most of the ideas:

1. Training and experience
2. Intelligence or talent
3. Motivation, drive, or desire to find out what makes things tick

More qualities that provide drive in a great scientist:

1. Constructive dissatisfaction: a slight irritation when things don’t look quite right or things could be better
2. Pleasure in seeing net results or methods of arriving at results
3. So strong desire to find out the answers, willing to work on it all weekend if necessary.

Methods of thinking that aid in creative work and in finding answers to problems:

1. Simplify: remove everything from the problem but the essentials, even if it is simplified to the point where it doesn’t resemble the original problem

2. Seek similar known problems: Analogous problems will probably have analogous solutions

3. Restate the problem: Change words, viewpoint, angles of approach. This is important to avoid ruts of mental thinking and it is why people new to a field can solve issues quickly

4. Generalize: Once an answer to a specific problem is found, see if it can be applied more generally. This is done in mathematics all the time.

5. Structural analysis: Break down the problem into smaller steps, theorems, stages, etc.

6. Invert: Assume the solution is true/false and try to prove/disprove the premise with it.
Profile Image for Nooilforpacifists.
856 reviews34 followers
August 18, 2017
Blecch. It's a good thing I knew something about Information Theory before reading this book. Because not only didn't authors Soni & Goodman, but they failed to communicate what little they had (especially how the switch to digital transmission could overcome most signal-to-noise issues, by making use of technologies like complex modulation or forward error correction, both invented after Shannon's most productive years).

This bio instead focuses in Shannon-the-mad-genius, slighting the genius. In a brief summer at Bell Labs, I met people who had worked with him (indeed, the Labs kept an office for him at least until divestiture). They told me more than this facile, skin-deep volume ever could.

To be fair, both mentioned Shannon's "Ultimate Machine", now in the MIT museum: a largish box with a single switch. When you flicked the switch "On", the box lid would open, a hand would snake out, turn the switch "Off", then the hand would reteat and the lid close. Yet, unlike this book's authors, Shannon's contemporaries understood the box's purpose--limits to Artificial Intelligence: could a machine-brain shut itself down. No carnival trick, this crude demonstration remains relevant today, even as AI has advanced spectacularly.

Find me a Shannon bio written by authors who understand AI, or at least its technological and legal ramifications. Skip this one.


ADDED Aug. 18th: The authors also confuse Beethoven with Mozart, calling the former a child prodigy pushed by his father.
Profile Image for Jacqui.
Author 62 books178 followers
July 9, 2017
Despite likely being the most brilliant man you've never heard of with the most comprehensive unknown impact on the advancement of technology, Claude Shannon, star of Jimmie Sonni and Rob Goodman's A Mind at Play (Simon and Schuster 2017), was by all accounts a normal kid through high school and college. Sure, he could send Morse code with his body (you'll have to read the book to see how that's accomplished) and he had a passion for solving complex math problems most people couldn't even read, but that changed when he was discovered by a string of mentors who helped him focus his intellect.

"...who could neither explain himself to others nor cared to."

It didn't hurt that he lived contemporaneously with such brilliant minds as Alan Turing, George Boole (of Boolean Logic fame), Albert Einstein, and anthropologist Levi Strauss. By the time he died, Shannon had produced a wide variety of ground-breaking research, taught at MIT, would be known as the Father of Information Theory, and was remembered for his prominence in engineering, mathematics, and cryptography.

"To picture Shannon at these times is to see a thin man tapping a pencil against his knee at absurd hours."

"Prone to writing down stray questions on napkins at restaurants in the middle of meals."

Understanding this book is easier though not necessary if you have a basic understanding of algebra. The authors share a limited number of formulas and do an admirable job of simplifying them to easily understood terms.

"Switches aren't just switches but a metaphor for math [I get this one but not too well]."

"Logic just like a machine was a tool for democratizing force: built with enough precision and skill it could multiply the power of the gifted and talented."

The fact that the book is at times long-winded and meandering (like discussing the history of the now-defunct Bell Labs) is a reflection of the authors' successful effort to decode a man who is often distracted and chaotic in his personal and professional life. 

Overall, if you like Isaacson's biography of Einstein or Nasar's A Beautiful Mind about John Nash, you'll love this book. If you like stories of the genius mind at play, how it unravels puzzles and solves life's unique challenges, you'll want to read this story.
December 8, 2017
I approached this book eagerly, because I feel a connection with the man and his work. I did graduate study at MIT, and worked under people mentioned in the book. I also worked at IBM and Bell Labs (in the same New York building), and did original work in fields that Shannon had just about invented. So I was primed to read it!

It was a major disappointment. For a book about a man like Shannon, you need to get two things right -- or at least one of them. It has to be a good biography, and it should give an understandable explanation of his contribution.

This book did neither well. I can understand not nailing it as a biography. Shannon was a very private individual, so it might have been hard to make him "come alive" based on factual research. But you could never make a movie of the book; a director would need almost every scene to add invented action and dialog. There is almost nothing of the man himself here. (At least not when he was doing his work. The "victory march" comprising the last third of the book did it better, but that was not the part I was interested in.)

As for explaining Shannon's work... Soni and Goodman are speechwriters with a background in political science. Why would we expect them to understand information theory. We shouldn't! As long as they stayed very vague about the significance of information theory a la Shannon, they seemed to have a decent grasp on it, if not very precise. But as soon as they started talking about what it meant, they got lost and even got things wrong. I don't think that serves any proper purpose. Being vague isn't great, but part of their audience might get it, and even appreciate the non-rigor. But promulgating errors does nobody any good.
_________________

This was to be the end of my review. But I suspect I'll be challenged on my statement about errors. So let me list just enough to make my point; there were more that I flagged.
*** A potientiometer doesn't rotate anything. It may be used to measure rotation, but it doesn't cause the rotation.
*** Parabolic antennas were called "satellite dishes" in the text. Literally. But it described a time years before there were any communication satellites in existence. And the antennas in question were on a totally different scale from satellite dishes, so it even fails as an analogy.
*** The attempt to present significance (and it IS deep significance) on pages 128-129 confuses and inaccurately combines time quantization (sampling) and amplitude quantization (coding). They are completely separate. Shannon made signifcant contributions in both areas, and our digital age today requires both. The writers don't understand (or, if they do, don't convey) the distinction.
Profile Image for Darian Onaciu.
52 reviews13 followers
March 9, 2020
Super shallow review: I'd playfully build one of these to Sisypheanly extinguish my existential anguish.
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,458 reviews217 followers
May 12, 2019
Claude Shannon's theory of information is one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century, up there with general relativity and the structure of DNA for things that reshaped the world. But the man himself was oddly self-effacing, an undoubted genius who cared little for the trappings of academic prestige and power, and who spent the latter part of his life tinkering with odd one-off devices while his disciples invented the practical applications of computing. A Mind at Play is a great biography of an unconventional past.

Shannon was born and raised in upstate Michigan, and was a strong if not top performing student. A chance fellowship for graduate work at MIT put him in contact with Vannevar Bush, and Bush's rooms of analogue computing machinery. Shannon had a magicians touch with devices, and more importantly the ability to see through the complexities of a problem to an underlying mathematics. Shannon was the first to apply a previously obscure branch of formal logic, Boolean operators, to electrical circuits, turning circuit design from an art to a science. Bush pushed him to do a PhD in genetics, where Shannon's equations for the evolution of traits in populations were far ahead of the field, and then saw him to a position at Bell Labs.

Shannon worked on military projects involving automatic gunsights and cryptography, was briefly married, and spent his evenings enjoying jazz and working on a private project on the fundamental nature of communication. His paper, when published in 1948, was like a starting gun, providing a formal basis for the new technology of computers which had been kick-started by the second World War.

Having created a field, Shannon entered a playful semi-retirement. He became a professor at MIT and worked on problems of interest, including a mechanical mouse that 'learned', a chess AI, wearable computers, and juggling and unicycles. By nature shy, he had little interest in leverage his intellectual authority for power and empire building, or even anything like a coherent research plan. He worked on what was interesting, and have advice to colleagues and students by asking provocative questions. Shannon life was made better by his wife Betty, a formidable mathematician in her own right, and children. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1983, and lived until 2001, in what can only be described as a pitiful shadow of his abilities.

A Mind at Play is a good, loving biography of a subject, whom for all his genius, had a clear purity. But the reason why I didn't give it five stars is that it seems clear that Shannon's tinkering was a clear mode of thought for him, and that his work at Bell Labs provided the impetus for information theory, and for whatever reason, this book fails to convey the joy of thinking with your hands.
Profile Image for Jessica Dai.
125 reviews44 followers
June 30, 2022
Claude Shannon was the GOAT (but we all already knew that). Me and Claude Shannon, we are not the same (but we also all already knew that). What I mean by this is — the Great Genius Man theory of progress is maybe sort of true, in that nothing about a biography of Shannon, even starting at childhood, really explains how he came up with, stumbled upon, created information theory, or why it was him and not someone else. At the same time, the descriptions of how much he really loved his work, how a particularly exciting proof might make him pull an all-nighter or something like that, make it pretty clear to me that that’s not me and won’t ever be, and I’m okay with that. I’m not going to invent a field and have neither ambitions nor delusions about doing so.

And yet, on this topic of Great Genius Man theory of progress… His high-achieving first wife dropped out of college to marry him (only to be divorced a year or so later), and his second wife was apparently the one to actually write his papers — it’s framed fairly diplomatically in the book as he’d come up with the math and she’d figure out how to arrange the content in the drafts, but….. cmon dude, not to pull the “I’ve written papers” card, but… I’ve written papers and figuring out how to arrange the content is really, really, nontrivial. (If it was that hard to do for my admittedly-incremental projects, how much harder was it for these huge, influential, field-building papers?) I’m torn between feeling good for her — that her partner took her seriously intellectually and that she could continue highly technical work — and bad for her — for obvious reasons. Idk, this just leaves a bad taste in my mouth though it’s possible she was doing as well as she could have within the constraints of the time?

The other thread I found really interesting was about WWII. Shannon (and other mathematicians, including Turing) was more or less conscripted to do math for the war effort, and in the book it’s pretty much framed as something he didn’t have much of a choice over, and also something he didn’t spend too much energy thinking about beyond not wanting to die on the frontlines. Supposedly he did some genuinely interesting and influential work during this period, too, such as modeling flight paths such that weapons could be more accurately targeted (or was it such that pilots could more easily avoid missiles?), which required substantively novel mathematical approaches.

Of course we can feel “good” looking back and celebrating him (and, again, the other mathematicians) now, because the Allies were the “good guys” and the Nazis were so clearly “bad guys,” but I can’t help but feel intensely ambivalent about this. It’s not too far a stretch to imagine that many German mathematicians were in the same boat—simply not wanting to die on the frontlines— (and, also, Enigma is genuinely quite cool), but does that excuse the fact that they were also enacting literal genocide? And… what does that mean for what seems to be the general indifference Shannon+ had about their military work? At this point these thoughts are no longer really about this book and maybe I should just read something more specifically about science & warmaking.

What I enjoyed most were the chapters about actual information theory and its development and I wish there had been more of that — though in that case, maybe I should have just read an info theory textbook for that idk. I don’t, actually, care that much about his papers on the theory of juggling or how he modeled & beat the stock market…. There’s also a little bit about Norbert Wiener, because supposedly Wiener “concurrently” came up with info theory, and I wish there was more about Wiener and the cybernetics stuff because it’s such fascinating cultural history and in my mind info theory is like substantively SO exciting in the way that cyberneticists were excited about the world but maybe Shannon was just not about that crowd. Idk.
Profile Image for Herve.
93 reviews206 followers
March 23, 2018
Claude Shannon, an honorable mathematician?

A Mind at Play is a very interesting book for many reasons. The subtitle “How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age” is one reason. It is a great biography of a mathematician whose life and production are not that well-known. And what is Information? I invite you to read these 281 pages or if you are too lazy or busy, at least the Shannon page on Wikipedia.

What I prefer to focus on here is the ever going tension between mathematics and engineering, between (what people sometimes like to oppose) pure and applied mathematics. Pure mathematics would be honorable, applied mathematics would not be, if we admit there is such a thing as pure or applied maths. So let me extract some enlighting short passages.

The typical mathematician is not the sort of man to carry on an industrial project. He is a dreamer, not much interested in things or the dollars they can be sold for. He is a perfectionist, unwilling to compromise; idealizes to the point of impracticality; is so concerned with the broad horizon that he cannot keep his eye on the ball. [Page 69]

In Chapter 18, entitled, Mathematical Intentions, Honorable and Otherwise, the authors dig deeper: Above all [the mathematician] professes loyalty to the “austere and often abtruse” world of pure mathematics. If applied mathematics concerns itself with concrete questions, pure mathematics exists for its own sake. Its cardinal questions are not “How do we encrypt a telephone conversation?” but rather “Are there infinitely many twin primes?” or “Does every true mathematical statement have a proof?” The divorce between the two schools has ancient origins. Historian Carl Boyer traces it to Plato, who regarded mere computation as suitable for a merchant or a general, who “must learn the art of numbers or he will not know how to array his troops.” But the philosopher must study higher mathematics, “because he has to arise out of the sea of change and lay hold of true being.” Euclid, the father of geometry, was a touch snobbier “There is a tale told of him that when one of his students asked of what use was the study of geometry, Euclid asked his slave to gibe the student threepence, ‘since he must make gain of what he learns’.”
Closer to our times, the twentieth-century mathematician G. H. Hardy would write what became the ur-text of pure math. A Mathematicians’ Apology is a “manifesto for mathematics itself,” which pointedly borrowed its title from Socrates’ argument in the face of capital charges. For Hardy, mathematical elegance was an end in itself. “beauty is the first test,” he insisted. “There is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” A mathematician, then, is not a mere solver of practical problems. He, “like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.” By contrast, run-of-the-mill applied mathenatics was “dull,” “ugly”. “trivial” and “elementary” And one (famous) reader of Shannon’s paper dismissed it with a sentence that would irritate Shannon’s supporters for years: “The discussion is suggestive throughout, rather than mathematical, and it is not always clear that the author’s mathematical intentions are honorable.” [Pages 171-2]

This reminds me of another great book I read last year Mathematics without apologies with one chapter entitled “Not Merely Good, True and Beautiful”. Shannon was a tinkerer, a term I discovered when I read Noyce‘s biography, another brilliant tinkerer. He was a brilliant tinkerer and he was a brilliant mathematician. He had himself strong vues about the quality of scientific research (pure or applied – who cares really?): we must keep our own house in first class order. The subject of information theory has certainly been sold, if not oversold. We should now turn our attention to the business of research and development at the highest scientific plane we can maintain. Research rather than exposition is the keynote, and our critical thresholds should be raised. Authors should submit only their best efforts, and these only after careful criticism by themselves and their colleagues. A few first rate research papers are preferable to a large number that are poorly conceived or half-finished. The latter are no credit to their writers and a waste of time to their reader. [Page 191] A brilliant tinkerer and it seems he designed and built the (or one of the) first computer that played chess. He was a juggler and a unicycler.

In the chapter Constructive Dissatisfaction, the topic is intelligence. It requires talent and training, but also curiosity and even dissatisfaction: not the depressive kind of dissatisfaction (of which , he did not say, he had experienced his fair share), but rather a “constructive dissatisfaction”, or “a slight irritation when things don’t look quite right.” It was a least, a refreshing unsentimental picture of genius: a genius is simply someone who is usefully irritated. He had also proposed six strategies to solving problems: simplifying, encircling, restating, analyzing, inverting and stretching. You will need to read that section pages 217-20.

He was also a good investor. In fact he was close to a few founders of startups and had a privileged access to people like Bill Harrison (Harrison Laboratories) and Henry Singleton (Teledyne) and although he used his knowledge to analyze stock markets. Here is what he has to say about investing: A lot of people look at the stock price, when they should be looking at the basics company and its earnings. There are many problems concerned with the prediction of stochastic processes, for example the earnings of companies… My general feeling is that it is easier to choose companies which are going to succeed, than to predict short term variations, things which last only weeks or months, which they worry about on Wall Street Week. There is a lot more randomness there and things happen which you cannot predict, which cause people to sell or buy a lot of stock. To the point of answering to the question of the best information theory for investment with “inside information.” [Page 241-2]

A genius, a wise man, an honorable mathematician.
Profile Image for Dean.
39 reviews
July 4, 2022
Something about this biography felt lacking. It's not a problem with the writing or the style - in fact, I think everything was executed quite well. Perhaps it's just that a Claude Shannon fanboy can't be satiated by a biography that is written from a perspective external to the eponymous "mind at play".

It's a nice read for when you're craving a slice of humble pie. Even Shannon's most "trivial" projects surpass most of any individual human's greatest achievements. I hope everyone reads this (and The Mathematical Theory of Communication) to truly appreciate Shannon's genius.

P.S. If you're wondering why this review is less strange than my others, it's because my wit pales in comparison to Shannon's, so I've decided to omit any attempts at it out of respect to the master.
Profile Image for Maukan.
35 reviews21 followers
June 29, 2022
I never heard of Claude Shannon before this book so I was interested to learn more about the man who created the Information age. You see similar patterns with great mathematicians, an incredible ability to synthesize abstract computational problems while being unable to have a conversation with another human which does not revolve around integrals. Claude is not on this extreme but it is noted that he did struggle with communicating.

The reason why I decided to write a review on this book is because of my immense respect for an intellectual powerhouse like Claude. He never cared about media attention, often was quick to remove himself from the spotlight, he tinkered on ideas that would never bring him any status or acclaim. His peers thought he was crazy but really he did what he wanted to do not what would give him the most attention. I have a deeply found respect for tinkers, inventors or intellectuals who simply follow what drives them as opposed to being so thirsty for some acclaim and play some sort of character once cameras are on them.


There was a time in this country or maybe globally where we cherished intellectuals where we trusted them based on their point of view and they did not sell out. Now "intellectuals" will rush research that is not validated or neither can it be replicated for the high of same fame or bullshit award. Not only that the research has some type of agenda to prove a social or cultural point. Knowledge or wisdom should be predicated on the information itself not on proving your cultural positions because they will give you status. Having that child like enthusiasm that is detached from fame or prosperity. Now intellectuals are horny to get on some television show or teach one of those bullshit master classes. Where is the love for the joy of the research itself without pimping yourself out for every monetization opportunity.
Profile Image for Karen Chung.
387 reviews89 followers
July 21, 2021
Do not miss this one if you have any interest at all in Information Theory, which I do, thanks to a paper written decades ago for an Advanced Phonetics class at the University of Hawaii, and 30+ years of language teaching. The authors did a brilliant job on this, while keeping it entirely accessible to average lay readers.
Profile Image for William K. Moses Jr..
344 reviews23 followers
August 4, 2017
Claude Shannon may be a name known only to some, but his influence is felt by most. Anytime you use a computer or device that communicates with another device, information flows between them in the form of bits and bytes. Claude Shannon contributed an understanding of how to quantify the information being sent (what exactly is information) and developed some pretty useful insights into how to efficiently transfer information between two devices. Essentially, he is the father of information theory.

That is his magnum opus and he was only 32 when he wrote up his seminal paper on information theory. Many times when I read about geniuses like this, who achieve something so extraordinary so early, the rest of their life reads like a tragedy. Their fall from grace, or their problems with the law or drugs, or some other very sad thing. But not Shannon. From what I've read, he seemed like a man at peace with himself who was polite and liked tinkering with things and playing with ideas. Sure, that doesn't make for a lot of drama, but it makes for a very interesting case study, since I haven't seen many people so accomplished and yet so happy.

As if that wasn't enough, the ideas behind information theory weren't Shannon's only major contribution to science. He is also responsible for linking Boolean algebra and circuits. Before him, building circuits that worked as intended was something of an art. After he wrote up his *master's thesis*, it was less an art and more a science.

All in all, Shannon lead an interesting life. Not only did he lead a happy life, but he worked in both the theory of research and oversaw direct applications of science (as when he helped build a machine to beat the odds at roulette at casinos). This guy was an interesting guy who enjoyed life and this biography captures that. However, the reason I gave this book 4 stars (actually 4.5 stars) instead of 5 is because it feels like the authors kept harping on about how amazing and smart and great Shannon was throughout the first part of the book. I mean, yes, it's important that we understand the magnitude of his achievements, but when I start to feel like for every 1 sentence describing Shannon I'm going to have to read 3 more about how great he is, it really detracts from the enjoyability of the book. But in the end, this book is definitely worth reading.
4 reviews3 followers
September 22, 2018
Unassuming genius from Midwest invents Information Theory and changes course of History

Engaging biographical account of a humble yet singularly influential scientist who changed the world with his mathematical theory of information which sparked a worldwide revolution of digital communication technologies. Starting with his rural origins, and tracing his evolution as a university student and later working scientist at Bell Labs, we get to become acquainted with anecdotes and writings which reveal a bit more about the inner workings of Claude Shannon's playful mind. In addition to his contributions to digital tech, we learn about his other interests such as chess-playing computers and the physics of juggling, and his incredible tinkering and gadget-making habits, like the maze that solved itself or his wearable roulette wheel quadrant guesser. An enjoyable and inspiring read.
Profile Image for Roberto Rigolin F Lopes.
363 reviews95 followers
August 6, 2017
Shannon played hard juggling ideas with rigorous mathematics. He approached the games with ingenious intuition and fierce courage building up very simple models which were incrementally developed further. Of course he also did pathbreaking synthesis connecting boolean logic to electronic circuits. As a result, now you can read review of books using computers and digital links. It is always delightful see genius at play and Shannon did it to the hilt.
Profile Image for Rick Sam.
389 reviews87 followers
April 7, 2022
Claude Shannon lived a life of curiosity.

description

I enjoyed the chapters mentioning about Bell Labs.

I would recommend this book to anyone, who is interested in Biographies,

Information theory, Computer Science, Mathematicians or people looking to understand Scientists

Deus Vult
Gottfried
16 reviews4 followers
September 19, 2017
Very interesting book about reclusive genius Claude Shannon. I studied Shannon's noise theorems in college and it was delightful to come across this book displaying his multifaceted personality and his childlike wonder of the world.
Profile Image for Shannon.
43 reviews2 followers
July 13, 2018
Sorry this is now an audiobook review channel but I do NOT recommend the audiobook version of this book lol. I really regret not buying the hard copy. The narrator is so....not a good fit. His voice made it so hard for me to listen to, and I never felt like he was modulating his tone appropriately so it was idk kinda tough. Like he'll just deadpan through Claude getting a divorce and riding his unicycle through Bell Labs in the same weird old-timey radio baseball announcer voice idk idk I'm cringing just thinking about it lmao.

BUT, the content is great, this is definitely a lovingly researched and written book, and Claude Shannon is v cute and I love him and I want more people outside of electrical engineering to know how cool and literally critical to the way we live he was. I honestly didn't even know he was responsible for introducing logic and the word "bit" into the electrical engineer's world (is this spoilers?) One of the CHILLEST geniuses you can ever get to know. I was most def tearing up at the end when they mentioned how he totally evaporated from the public mind after his death. This guy's worth remember. Stop having shitty tech idols when you can just like Claude Shannon lol.

This book also dips into other pertinent figures of the time who I barely knew anything about (Norbert Weiner and his shitty childhood, John von Neumann of the von Neumann architecture, etc) and other technologies that I'd long since forgotten about (analog computers that need to be reassembled each time, anyone?).

Overall, essential read for those who like the history of technology.
Profile Image for Daniel Walton.
66 reviews1 follower
July 27, 2021
The biography was of average quality. I think it spent too much time on ancillary details at the expense of discussing what Shannon actually accomplished. There was quite a bit of the frivolous description to "set the scene" throughout the biography. It made for uninteresting writing that I skimmed quite quickly.
On the other hand, Claude Shannon was a very interesting person, both for his great work on information transmission and as a curious human being. Learning about how he lived and thought, with whom he interacted, and what motivated him was interesting in its own right.
So, don't read this book for the writing; it's not very good. However, if you are interested in the man Claude Shannon and a (too brief) summary of some of the main concepts of his work, perhaps it's worth picking up.
Profile Image for Thom.
1,538 reviews47 followers
October 30, 2017
Excellent biography of a fascinating mathematician and visionary thinker. Ranges from early life through final years and does a decent job of introducing his Mathematical Theory of Communication, the basis of modern information theory. A solid 4½ stars.
Profile Image for Ali.
150 reviews
October 1, 2022
This is not only a biography of Shannon -which is a difficult task in itself as he seems like a shy version of Feynman, a tinkerer of the same caliber but very reserved in person- but also a brief history of information theory and stories of other great minds at play.
Profile Image for Amar Pai.
960 reviews102 followers
November 30, 2017
Eh. Felt like the book ended halfway through. Then it’s all juggling and awards ceremonies. I don’t care about Shannon the juggler. Not a great scientific bio.
Profile Image for Chad.
136 reviews7 followers
August 7, 2021
A Mind at Play is an excellent biography of Claude Shannon, a thinker and tinkerer who laid the groundwork for modern computing. Despite his monumental work in this space, he is likely unknown to most of the public (he has not entered the public consciousness in the way that Alan Turing or Albert Einstein has).

The book focuses heavily on how unique and gifted Shannon was, with an ability to cut to the heart of an idea, remove all excess, and intuitively know the shape of the solution. This is all entertaining and it's enjoyable to watch the building blocks of modern Information Theory come together from the breadcrumbs of analog computing and communication.

The authors are also able to find lessons from Shannon's life that can be applicable to everyone, without needing to be a certified genius. The two focal lessons are (1) not to overspecialize and (2) to be curious and playful. It's the lack of overspecialization that allowed Shannon to combine what were considered distinct fields (philosophy and electronics) to create binary digits. His playfulness and curiosity is what kept him on the cutting edge, stumbling into practical applications for things that were originally just inherently interesting.

Despite thinking I understood computers, this book helped me to deeply understand the concept of a bit, and how bits could be used to transport large packets of information (before, how to get from 0s and 1s to characters, commands, or pixels was a bit nebulous). This is explained masterfully in Chapter 16 "The Bomb."

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about how the world works, and the people who shape it.
Profile Image for Kenneth.
209 reviews1 follower
January 9, 2022
This is an extremely interesting book about someone who is remarkably important to the modern world but who is largely unknown outside of the technical fields he pioneered. If you are reading this, you are using his work. Indeed, since I listened to the digital audiobook version of the book, I used his work in reading it. Claude Shannon was a pioneer in information theory and was one of the first people who figured out how to digitize logical operands and boolean notation. His main work was in information theory where he wrote the paper that suggested that the key to transmission and storage of information was encoding it with something simple yet redundant enough to withstand noise and interference. This has gone on to inform how data is coded in virtually every electronic device you own. From the modem you're using to read this, to the signals being sent back to Earth by Voyager. The book is well written and interesting and serves as a good snapshot of life in the scientific, both commercial and academic life in the mid to late twentieth century. The chronological framing of the book does make it drag a bit as his major work was completed by 1948 and he lived to 2001. He did lead an interesting life, to be sure, but the second half of the book does not hold the attention as well as the first. This is not because his quirks did not make him interesting but because the authors explicate his work so well in the first half that it's kind of a let down when the coda is as long as it is.
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