the father of information theory -- 10/17/18

Today's selection -- from Fortune's Formula by William Poundstone. Claude Shannon was a brilliant mathematician, electrical engineer and cryptographer known as "the father of information theory." And then he abandoned the field he created:

"Shannon pub­lished 'A Mathematical Theory of Communication' in a 1948 issue of the Bell System Technical Journal. He was then thirty-two years old. Most of the work had been done years earlier, from about 1939 to 1943. Shannon told few people what he was doing. He habitually worked with his office door closed.

"As Bell Labs people gradually learned of this work, they were as­tonished that Shannon had devised such an important result and then sat on it. In what amounted to a scientific intervention, friends goaded Shannon to publish the theory. Shannon recalled the process of writing the 1948 paper as painful. He insisted that he had devel­oped the theory out of pure curiosity, rather than a desire to advance technology or his career. ...

"Shannon began teaching at MIT in the spring 1956 semester. ... It was supposed to allow Shannon the free time to be­gin writing a long-anticipated book on information theory. ...

"Shannon enjoyed the stimulation of MIT in limited doses. He did his best work alone. He had perhaps underestimated the volume of distraction confronting a living legend at a large urban university. Shannon 'started disappearing from the scene,' recalled Robert Fano. 'He kind of faded away, Claude.'

"Shannon took few Ph.D. students. They often had to meet him at his home in order to get advice. One student, William Suther­land, remembers walking in on Shannon's oboe practice more than once. 'He slept when he felt like sleeping,' said Betty [his wife], and would spend hours at the kitchen table thinking.

"Shannon's career as publishing scientist was just about over. He never completed the book ...

"Artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky speculated that Shannon stopped working on information because he felt he had proven almost everything worth proving. The self-contained per­fection of Shannon's early work was unsurpassable. Fano mentioned an uncanny phenomenon. With rare exceptions, it seemed that whenever an information theorist mentioned a current problem to Shannon, (a) Shannon was aware of the problem, and (b) Shannon had already solved it, but hadn't gotten around to publishing it.

"'I just developed different interests,' Shannon said of his near-abandonment of the field he created. 'As life goes on, you change your direction.' ...

"Letters, papers, and phone calls, many from world-renowned scientists, poured into Shannon's office. They wanted Shannon to review a paper or contribute one; give a talk, an opinion, a recom­mendation. Shannon turned down an increasing share of these re­quests. ... From time to time the CIA and other agencies turned to Shan­non when challenging cryptographic problems arose, only to be informed politely of Shannon's retirement. ...

"Shannon dealt with correspondence by shuffling it from folder to folder. On these folders he would write labels like 'Letters I've pro­crastinated on answering for too long.'

"Shannon was yet in his forties when he took what amounted to an early, unofficial retirement. Thereafter Shannon was MIT's Bartleby, whose characteristic reply was 'I would prefer not to' -- ­clerk of his own private dead-letter office."



William Poundstone


Fortune's Formula


Hill and Wang a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2005 by William Poundstone


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