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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.

Review: Closing the Gap, by Vicky Neale

Did you read Cédric Villani’s Birth of a Theorem? Did you have the same reaction as me, that all of the mentions of the technical details were incredibly impressive, doubtless meaningful to those in the know, but ultimately unenlightening?

Writing about maths, especially deep technical maths, so that a reader can follow along with it is hard – the Venn diagram of the set of people who can write clearly and the set of people who understand the maths, two relatively small sets, has a yet smaller intersection.

Review: Geometry Snacks, by Ed Southall and Vincent Pantaloni

Geometry Snacks cover

Exams have a nasty habit of sucking the joy out of a subject. My interest in proper literature was dulled by A-Level English, and I celebrated my way out of several GCSE papers – in subjects I’d picked because I enjoyed them – saying “I’ll never have to do that again.”

Geometry is a topic that generally suffers badly from this – but fortunately, Ed Southall and Vincent Pantaloni’s Geometry Snacks is here to set that right.

Review: The Maths Behind… by Colin Beveridge

The Maths Behind... front coverEd Rochead sent us this review of Aperiodipal Colin Beveridge’s latest pop maths book.

This book is written to answer the question ‘when would you ever use maths in everyday life?’ It therefore focuses on applied maths, across a surprisingly wide breadth of applications. The book is organised into sections such as ‘the human world’, ‘the natural world’, ‘getting around’ and ‘the everyday’. Within each section there are approximately ten topics, for which the maths behind some facet of ‘everyday life’ is explained, with cheerful colour graphics and not shying away from using an equation where necessary.

Festival of the Spoken Nerd: Just for Graphs DVD

The new live DVD from science comedy trio Festival of the Spoken Nerd, Just for Graphs, is out now, and we’ve been sent a copy to review. We got together a pile of appropriately nerdy science fans to watch (left), and here’s what we thought.

Review: Factris

Removing four lines at once with an I-piece in Tetris is the most efficient way to score, which creates a tension: on one hand, you want to build high enough to score quickly, but on the other, building too high puts you at risk of ending the game. The balance between the two is exquisite.

I mention that, because I was about to grumble that the corresponding balance in MEI Maths’s new game app thingummy Factris isn’t quite as good – of course it isn’t. Nothing ever will be.