Today, Google released a new Doodle to mark the birth anniversary of Claude Shannon – an American Mathematician, Electrical Engineer and Cryptographer – AKA “the Father of Information Theory”.
His most famous work is A Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949) in which he introduced information theory, the branch of mathematics focused on transmitting digital data. It was in this masterpiece that he coined the term “bit”, the fundamental unit of information which relates to digital certainty: true or false, on or off, yes or no. (He gave credit for the word’s invention to his colleague John Tukey, at what was then Bell Telephone Laboratories, who coined it as a contraction of the phrase “binary digit.”)
But he wasn’t just a brilliant Mathematician, he was also a great inventor, a juggler, unicyclist and enjoyed playing card games. Neil Sloane, a retired Bell Labs mathematician said, “Of course, Shannon’s main work was in communication theory, without which we would still be waiting for telegrams”. But circuit design, he added, seemed to be Shannon’s great love. “He loved little machines. He loved the tinkering.”
Shannon built the world’s first juggling robot, using an Erector Set (the equivalent of a Mecanno set). The robot was able to juggle three balls at one time – but bounced and caught them, rather than throwing them in the air and catching them.
Shannon was quite fascinated by game theory, and enjoyed visiting Las Vegas casinos with his wife, Betty, and fellow MIT mathematician Ed Thorpe. There they played Blackjack, using mathematical theories to count and predict card sequences. The two men also invented a small computer that could be concealed about one’s person, to aid them in playing Roulette – one of the earliest wearable computers.
During the Second World War, he designed equipment to intercept V1 and V2 missiles and in Axis code-breaking and while working at Bell Labs, he is believed to have met codebreaker Alan Turing.
Inspired by the late artificial-intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, he designed what was dubbed the Ultimate Machine: flick the switch to “On” and a box opens up; out comes a mechanical hand, which flicks the switch back to “Off” and retreats inside the box.
SciFi writer Arthur C Clarke wrote:
“There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing – absolutely nothing – except switch itself off.”
Shannon built a machine that did arithmetic with Roman numerals, naming it THROBAC I, for Thrifty Roman-Numeral Backward-Looking Computer. He built a flame-throwing trumpet and a rocket-powered Frisbee. He built a chess-playing automaton that, after its opponent moved, made witty remarks. He even built a pretty confusing unicycle for two.
His work has touched all aspects of the modern world. His principles of information are used across several disciplines. Biologists use them to help calculate ecological diversity. Physicists use them to contact space probes. You and I use them when sending text messages.
Claude Shannon passed away in 2001. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for some years and was unfortunately rather oblivious to the digital revolution he had helped create. The world thanks him for his invaluable contributions.
Information is the resolution of uncertainty.