The spirit of Claude Shannon looms large over IEEE Spectrum, and indeed the entire modern world. His 1937 demonstration that Boolean logic and algebra could be implemented using electric switches was a tremendous contribution to the computer age just by itself. Then Shannon topped this in 1948 by founding information theory, which provides the mathematical framework for all digital communication. Given his significance, we were surprised to find there was no book-length biography of Shannon, at least until now. This July, Simon & Schuster is publishing A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. Spectrum senior editor Stephen Cass spoke with them about Shannon and their book.
Stephen Cass: Why did you write this biography?
Jimmy Soni: I realized that Shannon was an incredibly interesting figure. I went looking for a biography, and it turned out there wasn’t one. And I was just really drawn to his personality. He was someone who had both the gifts and the opportunity to work on whatever he wanted. He was someone who really followed his scientific interests in a way that just enabled him to do remarkable, creative work that was just years in advance of whichever field he was in.
S.C.: What was the most surprising thing you learned?
J.S.: Probably one of the more surprising elements of Shannon’s life and his work was that he was a pretty artistic guy: He had a flair for the visual. He built a flame-throwing trumpet. He constructed Theseus, the maze-solving mouse. What’s interesting about that mouse is the actual maze solving is happening underneath, but he knew that in order to make people understand what was going on, he had to use an image that everybody could understand, which is a mouse going through a maze.
Rob Goodman: As someone with a humanities and social science background, learning about Shannon’s life and work really called into question the whole “two cultures” paradigm, that math and science and the humanities on the other hand have very little to say to each other. [Shannon was asking] questions that are really interesting to humanists as well, like, What is the nature of language? What makes a message surprising?.... What Shannon was doing was not all simply hard math. It was thinking about problems that really, at the same time, consumed people in linguistics and philosophy as well.
S.C.: How important was his familiarity with practical technology to developing his more abstract theories?
J.S.: It’s hard to explain the leaps he took if you don’t think back to his work on things like the telephone network at Bell Labs, on things like speech encryption during World War II, and even things like studying the physical properties of motion when he worked on antiaircraft gun directors as part of the war effort. It’s difficult to say exactly where his ideas came from, but I think Shannon was someone who always thought in this extraordinarily hands-on manner. Who knows what his work would have been like with those experiences out of the equation? But as far as we can tell, they were an essential part of his thought and creativity.
S.C.: All good biographies are exercises in curation. What was the hardest thing to leave out of your book?
R.G.: It would’ve been interesting to go and take a look at some of Shannon’s contraptions in more depth. We did it to some degree with the chess-playing machine and a couple of the other things, but there’s a room full of these kind of contraptions, and so we could have gone down the road of those curiosities to the tune of 100, 150 pages!