Claude Shannon was a man of a different age from ours, and not simply because it was his mind that informed the creation of our world. Even for his time, the mid-20th century, he was the quintessential quiet man. An engineer, a mathematician, a tinkerer, Shannon’s story proves to be riveting and relevant here is the 21st century, where we now understand ourselves to be swimming in a sea of information. With their biography, A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman have crafted a gripping narrative that honors their subject even as it astonishes their readers. A Mind at Play is an engaging exploration of the silences and spaces from which Information Theory, and the Internet, eventually emerged.
Shannon is not an easy man to write about, but the authors manage to create a seamless single voice with which to examine what proves to be a very American success story. To do so, they find the perfect scenes and prose to match, to wit, a story from Shannon’s youth about his use to electrified fences transmit coded messages on the wires. The authors are clear on the fact that this was not uncommon, but they write the prose and paint the picture so that readers cannot help but be thrilled in this intimation of what was to come. It is but one of many quiet moments that reverberate into the present.
Soni and Goodman bring in some heavy hitters and major players from this era; Vannevar Bush, whose genius was to find those like Shannon and others and bring them into the war effort; Alan Turing, who came to America to check up on our cryptography; John Von Neumann and Albert Einstein. They effortlessly weave these stories into Shannon’s story of creating the idea of the “bit.” He wanted to call it the “binary digit,” but was dissuaded from doing so. And so, Soni and Goodman offer us the wonder of seeing our world built one bit at a time.
One senses the authors’ respect for and understanding of Shannon with their occasional inclusion of the math and physics behind and of Shannon’s discoveries. It’s pretty damn easy and thrilling to read the core equation at the center of Shannon’s Information theory. Goodman and Soni pull off these scenes with ease. In honoring Shannon’s sense of quiet, they find their greatest strength as biographers. A Mind at Play is a playful and entertaining look at the man whose Information Theory underpins our reality.
Thrilling is an understatement with regards to my conversation about with Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. To be fair, we were all playing in the key of Claude Shannon, and these two experts earned their expertise in the creation of A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. But I also think that what was informing all of us was the fact that we are all in a sense children of the Information Age. No matter how loud it has become, our world was born in quiet. Follow this link and listen to Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, or listen below to pure information. Beauty!