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The incredible palindromic hat-trick

Would you like to see something AMAZING?

I’ve made another one of my interactive online maths doodads. You should have a go at it right now. It doesn’t require any effort on your part, other than coming up with a positive integer.

Review – A Mind At Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman

Front cover of A Mind At Play

For a while now I’ve been fascinated by the story of Claude Shannon, the pioneer of information theory and the originator of many fundamental concepts now used in all modern manipulation and transmission of data. Being sent a copy of this biography to review was a great chance to find out more about his work and life.

A Mind At Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age
Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman

The authors, who describe themselves as biographers and writers foremost, have taught themselves the mathematics they need to explain Shannon’s work, and weave in some excellent and succinct explanations of the concepts amongst a fascinating human story. From his early years as an enthusiastic maker and tinkerer, through his various university courses and his placement at Bell Labs, to his later years at MIT and retirement, Shannon’s life is chronicled in detail, with a spread of well-chosen photographs to accompany the story.

Claude Shannon is described as the father of information theory – his seminal 1948 paper outlined concepts including the fundamental nature of binary numbers (coining the word ‘bit’, a binary digit), information density, communication channels, and the theoretical Shannon Limit of how quickly digital information can theoretically be transmitted in a noisy channel. These ideas predated even simple computing machines, and Shannon’s work was perfectly timed to provide a foundation for those creating early computers.

The story gives a real sense of how Shannon was well placed to create the mathematics he did – with a sharp intellect that was torn between his love of abstract mathematical theory and his fondness for hands-on inventing and engineering, he had just the right mindset to see what communication theory would become and how it could be made rigorous in a mathematical framework.

It’s also fascinating to learn about Shannon’s other passions in life – nothing he did before or since comes close to the major impact his work on information theory had, but it was far from his only passion. Other areas of mathematics and engineering, as well as pastimes including juggling, stock market predictions, and building robots all fell to his mighty intellect and he brought huge joy to the people around him with his stories and ideas.

The book is well written and lovingly put together (and has a frankly beautiful cover in the hardback edition). It was enjoyable to read, and full of interesting facts and stories. I didn’t realise until reading this book that a wooden box I have at home, which has a switch on top that when flipped, engages a robotic arm that pops out and flips the switch back again, is a modern incarnation of an invention of Shannon’s – he called it ‘the ultimate machine’, one which switches itself off. Knowing this was his original creation, and the joy I find in it, gives me a real sense of connection to this brilliant mathematician whose work changed the world for all of us.

A Mind At Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman is published by Simon and Schuster.

Carnival of Mathematics 156

The next issue of the Carnival of Mathematics, rounding up blog posts from the month of March, and compiled by Robin, is now online at Theorem of the Day.

The Carnival rounds up maths blog posts from all over the internet, including some from our own Aperiodical. See our Carnival of Mathematics page for more information.

πkm run challenge – completed

As a final update, I’ve now finished my πkm running quest. I’m very tired now! Thanks to everyone who has donated at pikm.run, spread the word about it, come running with me or otherwise facilitated this.

Here’s the final set of photos and video clips from the last week, and for the data fiends among you, a sneaky look at my spreadsheet of runs. With a graph, as requested by Hannah Fry.

Wikiquote edit-a-thon – Saturday, May 12th, 2018

TL;DR: We’re holding a distributed Wikipedia edit-a-thon on Saturday, May 12th, 2018 from 10am to improve the visibility of women mathematicians on the Wikiquotes Mathematics page. Join in from wherever you are! Details below, and in this Google Doc.


Extension and abstraction without apparent direction or purpose is fundamental to the discipline. Applicability is not the reason we work, and plenty that is not applicable contributes to the beauty and magnificence of our subject.
– Peter Rowlett, “The unplanned impact of mathematics”, Nature 475, 2011, pp. 166-169.

Trying to solve real-world problems, researchers often discover that the tools they need were developed years, decades or even centuries earlier by mathematicians with no prospect of, or care for, applicability.
– Peter Rowlett, “The unplanned impact of mathematics”, Nature 475, 2011, pp. 166-169.

There is no way to guarantee in advance what pure mathematics will later find application. We can only let the process of curiosity and abstraction take place, let mathematicians obsessively take results to their logical extremes, leaving relevance far behind, and wait to see which topics turn out to be extremely useful. If not, when the challenges of the future arrive, we won’t have the right piece of seemingly pointless mathematics to hand.
Peter Rowlett, “The unplanned impact of mathematics”, Nature 475, 2011, pp. 166-169.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have every admiration for Peter and his work; his is a thoughtful voice of reason, and it’s not at all unreasonable for the Wikiquote page on mathematics to cite his writing.

πkm running challenge: 21-day round up

I’m still going! Two-thirds of the way through my epic running binge, and I’ve managed to keep it up every day so far. Since my last round-up on 7th, I’ve run another πkm each day, and my fundraising total is now at 22%, which is over £700 (and if you didn’t notice, that sentence just contained ’22’, ‘over’ and ‘7’).

If I can make it to £1000 before the end of the month, I’ll be pretty pleased! Donate at pikm.run, or see below for my daily sweaty photos/videos/instagram posts.

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