The passing of the great mathematician/engineer Claude Shannon gives me cause to reflect on the seeming lack of technical superheroes in our culture today. Where are the Claude Shannons of today, I wonder?

It was only a month ago that I attended the unveiling of a sculpture of Shannon in the foyer of Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N. J., where he conceived his theory of information. A glass case beside the newly sculpted bust of Shannon contains a copy of his classic paper, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication." The journal itself is now yellow with age, but the words he wrote in 1947 still gleam with an intellectual brilliance that transcends the decades:

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

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Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush
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Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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