We spent 5 years studying Claude Shannon—”the father of the information age” or, the reason you can read the words on this screen. The experience gave us great insights into how a genius thinks, works, and lives. AUA!

We spent 5 years studying Claude Shannon—”the father of the information age” or, the reason you can read the words on this screen. The experience gave us great insights into how a genius thinks, works, and lives. AUA!

Hi Reddit, we're Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni. We're authors and speechwriters. We've written both separately and together for a long while, and we've finished a couple books in tandem. We met at Duke, where we were both on the debate team and wrote for The Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper. Rob is currently a PhD candidate at Columbia University in political theory. Before beginning graduate study at Columbia, Rob worked as speechwriter for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Sen. Chris Dodd. Jimmy is an editor-at-large at the New York Observer, a partner at Brass Check, and has worked as a speechwriter for Governor Eric Greitens of Missouri.

After five years of research, we just wrote the first-ever biography of the mathematician and engineer Claude Shannon—A Mind At Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. We described him recently as roughly a cross between Albert Einstein and the Dos Equis guy. That's not too far off the mark: Shannon was regularly compared to Einstein in the sheer brainpower he had. But he wasn't just a good theoretical thinker. He was a builder and a tinkerer. He spent the better part of the last phase of his life in a two-story "toy room" that he outfitted so that he could build contraptions of all kinds. He built one of the world's earliest chess-playing computers, a mouse that could solve a maze (an early example of artificial intelligence), and co-made the world's first wearable device (a machine to get better odds at roulette). And he actually went to Vegas and tested it!

PROOF: https://twitter.com/jimmyasoni/status/889542114736041984

UPDATE: This has been tons of fun everyone. We joke that we've basically been waiting to share these stories with someone other than our families for five years. We're going to keep answering questions throughout the night!

I spent the best summer of my life helping Claude Shannon build a mechanical diorama of three juggling clowns. Have you seen this device?

I can confirm what you say about his amazing ability to tinker and invent. Plus, I have the honor of having learned to juggle and pass indian clubs from him.

I spent the best summer of my life helping Claude Shannon build a mechanical diorama of . Have you seen this device?

I can confirm what you say about his amazing ability to tinker and invent. Plus, I have the honor of having learned to juggle and pass indian clubs from him.

Thanks for the question coryrenton!

The biggest discrepancy involved whether or not Einstein and Shannon had tea together at Princeton, and our approach to it should give you a sense of how we attacked things like this.

As the story goes, Albert Einstein and Claude Shannon had tea together, accompanied by their wives. The anecdote has been repeated often, so it’s lodged itself into “Claude Shannon lore.”

This is a famous story—but is most likely false. Shannon and Einstein did overlap at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS), but we couldn’t find the evidence for a tea.

For one thing, by 1940, Shannon had done some interesting, important work, but nothing that would have attracted Einstein’s attention. Also, he wasn’t a physicist. So it wasn’t like Einstein would have sought Shannon out.

Shannon might wanted to get Einstein’s attention, but Shannon just also wasn’t the type to fight for that kind of audience. Shannon was enough of an introvert that he didn’t go out seeking his idols. And there’s nothing in Shannon’s behavior that would have indicated his desire to subject Einstein to a newly-minted PhD’s thoughts on this or that.

That was one problem with this account. The other is that Shannon never mentioned having tea with Einstein. He did however mention other Einstein run-in stories: He mentioned that he saw Einstein walking around in bedroom slippers, and that he once dropped by a class Shannon was teaching. But that was it.

Shannon was a modest guy, but it seems strange that he would share those about Einstein—and tell them excitedly!—and then not share a story about having tea with him. Ultimately, it was too implausible for our taste. In the interest of completeness and because the story had made the rounds, we included it in the book—but with our disclaimers and analysis.

With each moment in the book that had some controversy, we researched, interviewed, dug around, and did the best determination we could. We also had several people read and re-read the book at various stages to fix and find errors. Hopefully we got the story right!

That's actually one of the most interesting things about his life and work: There's a lot for us to take away from it. Sometimes when you think of figures like Einstein or Turing, they can seem like they're on Mount Olympus--and that all of us mere mortals can study them from afar but not embrace the way they did their work because it was so unique.

Shannon's work had similar scientific force and impact, but he was also down-to-earth. A few of the lessons that stood out to us:

1) Learn to be by yourself and in quiet places -- Shannon was an introvert, but we think contributed to his scientific imagination. He was comfortable being alone and thinking hard for long stretches of time. He also did this in places that lent themselves to that kind of thought: spartan bachelor apartments, an office whose door was usually closed. We can't imagine him trying to bang out information theory at Starbucks.

2) Study many disciplines -- Yes, Shannon was a train mathematician and engineer. But he was an equally skilled machinist and gadgeteer, one of the early pioneers of artificial intelligence, a unicyclist, a juggler, and a lot of other things. He had an omnivorous curiosity and it served him well. He was able to use all these disparate things to create the work that he did.

3) Don't worry about external recognition so much -- Shannon could barely be bothered about awards and honors. He found them amusing diversions from the work. Sometimes his wife or a mentor had to force him to actually go to the trouble of accepting awards. And even when he did, he did it with levity. (For instance, he hung all the honorary degrees he won from a rotating tie rack!). Why does this matter? Because he was running his own race. He wasn't trying to go after a specific award or honor, so he was free to do what he did his entire life: let his curiosity wander to the places it wanted to go.

Those are just some of the lessons. We wrote more of them up here, and happy to go into any of these in further depth .

were there any interesting discrepancies you've found in people's accounts of events and how do you resolve them?

To be honest, that was one of the more anxiety-producing aspects of working on this book. As we put it in our Acknowledgments section at the end, we're biographers, not mathematicians or engineers--and while I think biography is a skill in itself, it doesn't make you an expert in the field of the subject whose biography you're writing.

So writing this book was a learning process: we said that we set out to write something that we'd also like to read. In other words, we wanted to write for people who were fascinated by tech and its history, and who loved the stories surrounding it, but didn't necessarily have a hard-science background. The good news is that we didn't have to worry about going over anyone's head--if we "got" it, that was a pretty good guarantee that our readers would, too.

But, as you point out, that also brought with it a huge challenge: as we researched Shannon's life story and spoke with his surviving family, friends, colleagues, and students, we also had to make sure we got the science right and did justice to him. So we made sure to both speak with a number of real experts during the drafting of the book, and to ask them to review drafts as we worked toward a final version. You'll find a more complete list in the Acknowledgments and bibliography, but some of our most helpful consultants were Sergio Verdu of Princeton, Bob Gallager and Henry Pollak (former Shannon colleagues), information theorist Dave Forney, and Alex Magoun of the IEEE. Of course, any and all mistakes in the book are ours, not theirs. But from the feedback we've gotten, it's gratifying to see that, at least from a layperson's perspective, we've given an accurate overview of Shannon's achievements.

It seems like neither of you have a background in mathematics or engineering, did you have consultants work with you on that to talk about Shannons technical achievements?

So the answer to that--or at least the best answer we have--is that he came in, stood in back, paused, whispered something to a student and then left. Later, Claude Shannon asked what Einstein had whispered. He was looking for directions to the men's room.

Let me add one more that I think about a lot: work with your hands. This was something Shannon did for basically his entire life. He would take things apart, put them back together, and see if he could improve on how they worked. Even at the very end stages of his life, when he was in a nursing home battling alzheimer's, he would take apart his walker and try to imagine a better design for it.

Why does that matter? Because I think it gave him a quality that one engineer described as "not only the ability to think about things but through things." It was a powerful part of his work--and I think it's something we might take for granted in our own.

My guess is that the problem-solving and tactile pieces of working with your hands offer some brain-enhancing effects. But I also think there's a broader point about appreciation and craftsmanship. There's a great book on the topic called Shopclass as Soulcraft that's worth checking out.

I think Shannon could anticipate future robotics because he didn't just write papers, he built robots. He could imagine an artificially intelligent world because he built an artificially intelligent mouse. I don't know how to reclaim that sort of thing exactly, but I know it's a powerful part of what made him who he was.

What can I take away from how Shannon thinks, works, and lives and apply today to think, work, or live better?

Well, that is just rude

Yes! We saw that diorama and discuss it in the book--so cool to hear from someone who helped Shannon build it.

I have to say, one of the best parts of this project has been hearing from people who worked with or tinkered with Shannon personally, and who testify across the board to what a remarkable and inventive person he was. The subject of our last biography (Cato the Younger) has been dead for about 2,000 years, so this has been a blast in that regard.

Also, as someone who has tried and failed for years to juggle, I'm always impressed by how much effort Shannon put in to be good at it. That's especially true given the fact that, in the words of Jon Gertner, "Shannon would often lament that he had small hands, and thus had great difficulty making the jump from four balls to five—a demarcation, some might argue, between a good juggler and a great juggler." I'm not sure if you remember him saying anything like that in your experience, but it's good to hear that even the most gifted can struggle with some things.

Do you honestly think that? Compiling tons of information, doing interviews, sifting through what is real and what is myth over the course of 5 years is not something that takes skill? What have you done for the last 5 years?

He was an amazing juggler; as I mentioned elsewhere (sorry for my crazy editing in this thread -- I got too excited about seeing an AMA about Claude Shannon) he taught me to juggle indian clubs and to pass balls and clubs. Your quote exemplifies his modesty.

His house (where I went to work each day) was filled with marvelous gadgets and smart toys. Plus he had a nice workshop in the basement, where I spent much of my time, fabricating parts for the diorama.

I could tell you a million things about that summer and that job. What a great, and good, man.

Edit: at least during that summer, his favorite way of solving a thorny problem was to put a Pete Fountain tape in his Walkman, sip a cold drink and walk around the house, thinking.

So there's a lot alike between the two of them. They are both quiet. They are both introverted, preferring their own company to that of others. They both advanced computing very far. They both participated in the worlds of encryption, cryptography, and code-breaking during WWII. They are both brilliant--and their smarts were evident to those around them, people who were in a position to pass those kinds of judgments.

The most obvious difference between the two of them: Shannon didn't have the same tragic story as Turing. Outside of a possibly mild depressive episode in his 20s, Shannon's life was largely lived on an even keel. Shannon wasn't the most social guy in the world, but we imagine that Turing's social awkwardness was just a notch or two higher.

The biography that's the must-read on Turing is called "The Enigma." And I think that title is pretty revealing: Turing was enigmatic and tough to get at. That's common in a lot of genius-level minds, but as we said earlier, it's actually part of what makes Shannon so refreshing. He wasn't an open book, per say, and as biographers, we knew he had more IQ points than us, but he definitely wasn't inaccessible in the same way that Turing was.

Shannon's work had a hard-headedness and practicality; we could watch YouTube vides of Theseus the mouse or the Ultimate Machine. We could make sense of his chess playing machine. I admire Alan Hodges for taking on Turing as a subject. I don't think we would've had the courage to do it.

One final thought: Probably my favorite chapter to write in the book was the one that focuses on the meeting between Turing and Shannon. These two guys--so brilliant, and so fond of being alone--actually ended up becoming friends. They got together for daily tea at Bell Labs during war-time, when Turing was on a tour of the United States, checking to make sure that American encryption machines passed muster with the British government.

Turing visited Shannon at his home--which probably put him in a company of less than five people to do so. They talked about building computer brains. They talked about artificial intelligence. They talked about everything except...codebreaking. They had to be cagey about that because the work was as secretive as any being done at the time. But in a way, it freed them up to talk about so many other interesting things.

Shannon ended up visiting Turing later in the UK after the war. They played around with a computer he had in his basement and ended up picking up right where they left off. The story is tragic because Turing died shortly thereafter, but there's also something fitting in the fact that these two war-time code-breakers reunited and nerded out.

It's amazing to imagine those teas and that meeting now, knowing what an impact they both had. We wouldn't have had the chops to join them, but it would have been interesting to eavesdrop into what they saying over their Earl Greys.

Imagine Shannon's disappointment upon hearing this.

There's a great (probably apocryphal) story on this. Supposedly Shannon and John von Neumann were having a conversation at Princeton in 1940, when Shannon was first piecing his theory together. Shannon approached the great man with his ideas on the problem of quantifying information, and how it related to uncertainty, and then asked what he should call this thing. Von Neumann answered at once: say that information reduces “entropy.” For one, it was a good, solid physics word. “And more importantly,” he went on, “no one knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.”

Now, as I noted, our research suggests that this conversation didn't exactly happen in those terms. But as we put it in the book, "good science tends to generate its own lore." And the reason this piece of lore has stuck around is that entropy is such a fuzzy concept.

Here, in very rough terms, is how Shannon uses it. He says that information resolves uncertainty, so the messages that resolve the highest amount of uncertainty convey the greatest amount of information. For example, the outcome of flipping a fair coin is more uncertain than the outcome of flipping a weighted coin, so the fair coin stores more information. This implies that, contrary to our ordinary language use of the word "information," a string of random-looking text contains more information than a string of comprehensible text (which is structured by all sorts of rules and patterns that make it predictable). If we take entropy to mean "disorder" (and I can hear physicists wince as I try to sum up a difficult concept like that), then the most disorderly-looking messages are the most information-rich in Shannon's terms. By contrast, more patterned messages are lower in entropy, and less information-rich in Shannon's terms.

As I said, that's a very, very rough outline. But I'd suggest that Shannon really uses "entropy" in his work as something of a metaphor, taking a concept from the physical sciences and finding it as a useful explanatory concept in information theory. (I'd also point out that he had predecessors in this regard, including Norbert Wiener and Leo Szilard.)

Tons! Let me list a few of the ones that jump to mind:

He once had a correspondence with L. Ron Hubbard, as Rob mentioned in a different answer (disclaimer: he was not a Scientologist. He enjoyed Hubbard's science fiction writing).

He once met Steve Jobs. Shannon didn't know who he was, and it was actually Steve Jobs who elbowed his way into the audience with Shannon, not the other way around.

He played the jazz clarinet. As if being brilliant and inventing things isn't enough.

He once wrote a paper that devised a system of pulleys and mirrors that would allow a driver from the US to feel like he was in a car in the UK and still driving on the right side of the road. (This is how he spent a fellowship at Oxford. And it's a 2,000 word paper, so it's not something he just dashed off.)

He didn't get perfect grades in high school. In fact, he had his share of Bs.

He became a juggler, but was frustrated by the fact that he could never get to five balls.

He once built a false wall in his house that would rotate at the push of a button.

A tree had grown oversized on the Shannon property. Rather than just have it cut down, Shannon had the idea to have it carved like a flagpole and have a skull carved at the top. He then stuck a Jolly Roger skull-and-crossbones flag on it.

Biographers Bad biographers create more myth, confusion and bullshit just to line their own pockets.


Thanks for the question! I think one major misconception about Shannon's life is that the second half of it didn't amount to much, or was even some kind of waste of talent. It's true that Shannon's most groundbreaking work was done at an early age (so early that it makes me wince when I compare my own 20s and 30s). At 21, Shannon's master's thesis explained how binary switches could perform Boolean logic, and laid a key foundation for digital computers. And at 32, of course, Shannon's "Mathematical Theory of Communication" inaugurated information theory and won him international fame.

I've heard Shannon compared to a professional athlete in this regard--his key accomplishments came in his relative youth, and then there was a long stretch of time in which he lacked direction by comparison.

But there are three reasons why I think this is a misconception. First, Shannon helped to set the agenda of a wide range of emerging fields even after his work on information theory. He developed (along with his colleague Robert Fano, and followed by Fano's student David Huffman) some pioneering digital codes for compressing messages. He was a pioneer in early thought about artificial intelligence. He developed one of the first chess-playing computers (which could handle six pieces in the endgame), and wrote a paper on computer chess that was influential in the field for decades to come. Along with Ed Thorp, he built arguably the first wearable computer (used to beat the house at roulette).

Second, the methods that Shannon used to do this later work weren't that distinct from the methods he used in his earlier work. His interests were consistently promiscuous. He loved thinking with his hands, and not just abstractly. He loved picking up on strange and playful analogies. He asked questions that others were liable to dismiss as unworthy of a serious scientist. It's true that nothing Shannon did in his later life lived up to his "hits." But I think it's important to judge process, not results--and we can learn a lot from Shannon's process even later in life. He outlined a lot of his key insights in that regard--like the virtue of simplifying problems--in a talk he gave to Bell Labs employees on creative thinking, which we dug up from the archives and discussed in our Shannon book.

Third, Shannon's later life is worth knowing about because it was just fun. Here's a guy who could have gone on pursuing the trappings of scientific celebrity and pontificating on whatever he felt like--but instead, given that kind of freedom, he tinkered in his two-story workshop and followed his curiosity wherever it took him. Things like Shannon's flaming trumpet, customized unicycle fleet, or juggling robots aren't of huge scientific interest--but they tell you a lot, in my opinion, about the kind of mind that's capable of Shannon-sized breakthroughs.

Re: the movie, fortunately I don't have to choose the actor to play him. Mark Levinson, the director of Particle Fever, is at work on a Shannon documentary set to come out soon, and John Hutton is playing Shannon. Here's the IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5015534/. I know I'm camping out for tickets.

information resolves uncertainty, so the messages that resolve the highest amount of uncertainty convey the greatest amount of information. For example, the outcome of flipping a fair coin is more uncertain than the outcome of flipping a weighted coin, so the fair coin stores more information.

And also, you can measure the amount of information by counting how many yes/no questions the recipient would have to ask the sender to figure out what the message is. For example, if Alice shuffles a standard deck of 52 cards thoroughly, and takes a secret peek at the top card in the deck, Bob would need to ask Alice 5 or 6 yes/no questions to figure out for sure which card it is, for example:

"Is the card's suit red?" (Answer: no.) "Is the card's suit spades?" (Answer: yes.) "Does the card have a number less than or equal to 8?" (Answer: yes.) "Does the card have a number less than or equal to 5" (Answer: no.) "Does the card have the number 6 or 7?" (Answer: yes.) "Is the card six of spades?" (Answer: no.)

So in this example, after six yes/no questions and truthful answers, Bob knows for sure that Alice's card must be the seven of spades. With Shannon's theory we can shortcut this counting process—for a card chosen at random with equal probability as all the other cards in the deck, the average number of yes/no questions needed is the base two logarithm of the number of equally likely alternatives: log2(52) ≈ 5.7 questions on average.

So if instead of making Bob play this little game, Alice just told him the randomly chosen card, the amount of information she would be giving him is the same as the average number of questions in the game: 5.7 bits.

as a journalist, i'm terribly disappointed to see this reaction to biography, a field very closely related to my own.

there are some bad eggs but by and large we work our asses off to portray an accurate picture. and if OP's aforementioned work on the einstein/shannon story is any indication, they've done just that to the best of their ability.

you won't believe this, but seldom do people document the entireties of their own lives.

That was the only pirate reference we could find, but I'd add one observation. When I think of that quote "It's better to be a pirate than join the Navy," I think of Claude Shannon. He had this counter-culture streak about him, and he was a non-conformist in the best sense. Someone told us in an interview that Claude Shannon would have made the world's greatest con man if he had gone in that direction. When we shared that quote with his daughter, she said, "He would've taken that as a huge compliment."

Since I have to ask a question at top-level, I'm hijacking this comment to say thanks for the biography. I learned well of Shannon being a math major IT minor, but having a nice book for all of this is nice.

Thank you.

That's a fantastic question. The honest answer is: He wasn't a fan of the government bureaucracies and the times he had to engage with them. The secrecy, the classified nature of the work, the bureaucracy--it was all a little stifling and strange to him.

He got a government contract to come to Bell Labs and do work on "fire control"--essentially the mathematics of how to shoot things down from the sky. It wasn't his favorite work assignment ever, but it spared him from the draft. He made no bones about it: He did not want to deploy. He was frail and would have hated the close quarters of military life. Plus he thought his brain would be more useful than his body to the war effort.

It wasn't entirely to his liking, but that said, he does do what colleagues later report as "stunning work." It also gets him in front of some of the leading scientists of the time. Later, because of that period, he's invited into the earliest discussions around the creation of the NSA, with a specific ask that he help out on committees related to cryptography.

The CIA actually writes to Bell Labs to ask for Shannon by name. To anyone else, this would be a huge honor. Shannon thought of it, as best as we can tell, as a bit of an annoying distraction from his work. He went to these meetings in paneled boardrooms at the Pentagon, but when we picture these scenes, we sort of think of him as a second semester senior in high school. He's there...but he's not really there.

That's all the more entertaining when you think about the fact that some of the leading brains in the world were invited to that room. But they had to convince Shannon to do it!

In any case, very few people know about that era of Shannon's life, and it was exciting to dive into it. It felt, for a brief instant, like we were in the middle of a good spy movie...but then it turns out that the main character can't be bothered with spycraft. Oh well.

Wow, you've read every single biography that's ever been written? That's quite an achievement. You should do an AMA.

I'm reading your book right now and it's exciting to see no fear in the face of publishing math, or at least the final definition of the problem or solution (but not the derivation).

Leave it to the audience to decide if it's interesting.

That's so Raven Einstein.


We actually spoke to Ron and his wife about Shannon. They knew him well, and they held him in high regard.

Here's the famous vide of Shannon juggling, and you'll see the juggling clowns in action too:

How do you explain entropy to the common person?

The proof is left as an exercise for the reader. Fuckers.

An Old Fashioned, iirc.

oh, a troll. graduate from nihilism and we'll chat.

enjoy your summer.

Are there any big misconceptions about Shannon's life that this book dispels? Also, if there were a movie made about Claude Shannon which actor would you choose to play him?

Claude has been a personal hero of mine for ages.

How would you compare him to Turing?

I spent the best summer of my life helping Claude Shannon build a mechanical diorama of three juggling clowns. Are you familiar with this device?

EDIT: Aargh, I deleted the post you responded to before I saw your response. Sorry! Here's what you responded:

Wow! Yes, we are familiar, but definitely not in the way that you are. The best we could do is to dig up the photographs and find a long-lost interview with a juggling magazine in which Shannon talks about these juggling clowns, with praise: “The greatest numbers jugglers of all time cannot sustain their record patterns for more than a few minutes, but my little clowns juggle all night and never drop a prop!”

So fascinating that you got to build them, and of course, we have a million questions. But maybe just letting you respond to this and talk about what it was like to be at his elbow building with him. How did you get introduced to him? What prompted him to build that diorama? Tell us everything!

I went to school with Claude's daughter, and had some skills tinkering with electronics and computers. He was looking for a helper and she recommended me. At first, he wanted to build an actual robot (much like he did later on with his W.C. Fields robot). But then he settled on the idea of a diorama showing the (at that time) record-holding juggling performances.

I would just do whatever odd job needed doing; he was obviously the brains of the operation. :-) He taught me to mill poker chips on a Bridgeport, and to use a lathe to accurately drill holes in the middle of said chips. (The chips were used for the pin-juggling clown to get the proper rotation of the pins).

He was an amazing man, and I loved talking and working with him.

I spent the best summer of my life helping Claude Shannon build a mechanical diorama of three . Are you familiar with this device?

EDIT: Aargh, I deleted the post you responded to before I saw your response. Sorry! Here's what you responded:

Wow! Yes, we are familiar, but definitely not in the way that you are. The best we could do is to dig up the photographs and find a long-lost interview with a juggling magazine in which Shannon talks about these juggling clowns, with praise: “The greatest numbers jugglers of all time cannot sustain their record patterns for more than a few minutes, but my little clowns juggle all night and never drop a prop!”

So fascinating that you got to build them, and of course, we have a million questions. But maybe just letting you respond to this and talk about what it was like to be at his elbow building with him. How did you get introduced to him? What prompted him to build that diorama? Tell us everything!

I went to school with Claude's daughter, and had some skills tinkering with electronics and computers. He was looking for a helper and she recommended me. At first, he wanted to build an actual robot (much like he did later on with his W.C. Fields robot). But then he settled on the idea of a diorama showing the (at that time) record-holding juggling performances.

I would just do whatever odd job needed doing; he was obviously the brains of the operation. :-) He taught me to mill poker chips on a Bridgeport, and to use a lathe to accurately drill holes in the middle of said chips. (The chips were used for the pin-juggling clown to get the proper rotation of the pins).

He was an amazing man, and I loved talking and working with him.

What was his favourite drink?

So it's actually been one of the more enjoyable aspects of our professional writing lives.

Our process was roughly this: We divided up the chapters in the book based on where our natural interests and strengths were. We'd each focus on that chapter and write it fully before getting it to the other person. Then the other person would mark it up, edit, add comments, etc, and get it back. We'd keep ping-ponging chapters until they sounded like they came from one human.

We interviewed almost everyone together. That was important in case one of us missed something that the other picked up on, but it was also just a lot more fun. It made it more of a conversation and less of a strict interview.

A "book marriage" like our's probably has the same elements of any marriage: You're going to have moments of frustration and difficulty, punctuated by moments of joy and hilarity. We had more of the latter than the former for sure, and honestly, a big part of why we can do this together is we were friends before we became co-authors. We can sit in a room together for long stretches of time and just grind away at this, but we still manage to watch hilarious YouTube videos or laugh about some random tweet.

We never came anywhere close to a "book divorce," though I really liked having bigger quotes from our interview subjects and Rob would always go in and trim them down. I nearly asked him to sleep on the book couch that night.

In general, we'd really recommend co-writing books. You always have someone to trade ideas off, and you have someone who can handle their share of the work. You're also accountable to someone other than yourself. You end up being able to enjoy the writing process more and, when the inevitable wins and losses happen, you're able to share them with someone.

But find someone who doesn't hate block quotes so much. That makes it smoother sailing.

If Einstein wouldn't have seeked Shannon out, why would he have dropped by a class Shannon was seeking? It doesn't sound that implausible given what interaction was known to occur.

What is the most surprising or unexpected thing you found out about Shannon? Thanks for doing this AMA!

I also would love to hear a response to this question.

Hamming is the author of what I regard as the most readable technical book of all time "Coding and Information Theory", in which he explains a lot of Shannon's work.

A deeply mathematical and technical book, but wonderfully clear and concise and understandable.

That was the book that convinced me that my problems with university were not that I am stupid, but that most academics were just really really Bad at explaining things.

Once I had that epiphany, things went a lot better for me, as I started to look the simplicity inside the layers of complexity they were teaching me.

I'm rather grateful to Hamming.

I would also love to know to what extent they worked together on that book.

When I was going through Shannon's letters at the Library of Congress--and there are boxes of it--I was surprised to find some correspondence between Shannon and L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame. Hubbard sought Shannon out and wanted to incorporate some bits and pieces of Shannon's information theory in "Dianetics." Shannon was uninterested in this--he generally clamped down strongly on non-scientific or pseudoscientific applications of his work--and didn't follow up (though Hubbard went ahead and cited Shannon anyway).

The funny thing is that Hubbard was much better known to Shannon as a sci-fi author. As Shannon wrote to his colleague Warren McCullough, "If you read Science Fiction as avidly as I do you’ll recognize him as one of the best writers in that field....I am sure you’ll find Ron a very interesting person, with a career about as varied as your own, whether or not his treatment contains anything of value." That was all of the Shannon-Hubbard correspondence I could find--and while it makes me question Shannon's taste in literature a bit, I suppose I can give him a pass.

As to what fascinating and unexpected thing obsessed me, I really loved digging into the history of analog computers--incredible machines I barely knew about before I started getting into the Shannon research. As a grad student, Shannon was one of the people in charge of MIT's massive Differential Analyzer, which ran on gears, shafts, and pulleys, and used graphs as both inputs and outputs. It was remarkable how difficult it was to construct and maintain complicated machines like this, and it was remarkable what sophisticated math analog machines could carry out. Or I suppose I should say that they "acted out" math--as we put it in the book, there's a sense in which analog computers actually perform equations in the course of solving them. It's a topic I loved geeking out on, and we made sure to get lots of that background in the book.

Hey there, I just wanted to stop in and say it's pretty great of you to hold onto a craft that people have lost so much faith in recently. There is so much garbage journalism out there that I think it makes real journalists who actually do the research and try to publish facts even more valuable today. People like the guy attacking you in the comments are just angry idiots who would rather rage against how everything and everyone but them is wrong than try to find good information or good writers. Please keep up your work and never forget that for every idiot that would call you a "useless parasite" there are people out there who actually value what you bring to the table.

A tree had grown oversized on the Shannon property. Rather than just have it cut down, Shannon had the idea to have it carved like a flagpole and have a skull carved at the top. He then stuck a Jolly Roger skull-and-crossbones flag on it.

Was he into pirates?

information resolves uncertainty, so the messages that resolve the highest amount of uncertainty convey the greatest amount of information. For example, the outcome of flipping a fair coin is more uncertain than the outcome of flipping a weighted coin, so the fair coin stores more information.


Mind blown.

Shannon and Turning, sipping tea. Now that is a fascinating image.

A good portion of Shannon's work ended up classified for a number of years. As a scientist, how did he view this treatment of his work?

Why do we never just talk anymore, Jimmy? It's like "Claude Shannon this, Claude Shannon that"...I have needs!


We'll always have Paris.

Although, if I could pick who to cast, I pick Ryan Gosling, because when in doubt, cast Ryan Gosling.

Who shit in your cornflakes today?

Nothing tops the time I passed Indian (juggling) clubs with him. He was so happy to see my increasing skill (I would practice the clubs when I got home from "work"). He had a child-like joy when he juggled. He tried to get me going on a unicycle, too, but that didn't take. :-)

As I mentioned elsewhere, the image I see in my head is Dr. Shannon wearing a walkman and headphones, listening to Pete Fountain, sipping an Old Fashioned and walking around the house, trying to work out some problem in the gadget.

James Gleick's book is a great read, but in this case, it was actually Jon Gertner's THE IDEA FACTORY that gave us the notion to write a biography of Shannon. Gertner's book is a narrative history of Bell Labs, and one of the central figures in it is Claude Shannon. He was so interesting in the pages of Gertner's book that we got to wondering, "Why hasn't anyone done the end-to-end life of Claude Shannon?"

Once we asked that question of our agent, she set us up for lunch with the legendary Alice Mayhew--the Simon & Schuster editor behind A BEAUTIFUL MIND and STEVE JOBS and EINSTEIN, among other books. She got the idea for the book right away: That there was something about this mind that needed to be captured and preserved.

(As an aside, people should definitely check out Gertner's book. Mark Zuckerberg recommended it last year, and it's a really insightful look into what makes organizations tick--and what makes tech companies innovative.)

Thank you for noticing the time and passion--I think you're absolutely right about that, and I'm glad it shows. Speaking for myself, I'm a bit uncomfortable getting in to dollar figures, but I can tell you a bit about the structure of how this works financially for authors, which I've found a lot of people are interested in.

Because we're not exactly J.K. Rowling over here, we were paid a decent advance for the book, but not exactly enough to make writing our day jobs. (And in fact, both Jimmy and I have day jobs we pursue alongside this project--mine is as a grad student and college instructor.) The advance is based on an estimate of the number of books we're expected to sell. When and if we sell more than that number, we've "earned out"--that is, covered the advance we've been paid. At that point, we start to see royalties for each book sold. The good news is that they don't take your advance away from you if you don't earn out--I've only heard of that happening in cases where authors don't deliver the books they've promised.

The work we do to publicize the book--this AMA, interviews, placing pieces on Shannon--generally isn't paid, but we see that as part of our mission of spreading the gospel of Shannon and supporting the sales of the book. Hope that's a helpful answer!

Think you meant /u/

I heard a piece on NPR this weekend about Alzheimer's. There were some nuns that were studied, they had brains that should the they had Alzheimer's but to outsiders they seemed like normal functioning adults. Then I lost the radio signal for a bit....but what I gathered was they were arguing the possibilities that because these nuns did a great deal of daily high functioning thinking/thought experiments it helped them overcome Alzheimer's.

That's so exciting! I am a big fan of Shannon's work, and I'm so glad to hear there's finally a full biography.

Richard Hamming shared an office with Shannon for a while and looked up to him quite a bit. If you happen to know, what did Shannon think of Hamming (and their boss)?

And that man's name? Albert Einstein!

What a story--and what an opportunity. What do you think your most vivid memory of him is?

That's a good catch, and you're correct. Embarrassingly enough, I looked through our endnotes again and see that we actually cited the 1971 article by Tribus and McIrving in Scientific American as an early source of the anecdote. I'll have to plead exhaustion from the book's launch week. I think our judgment when we were working on that section was that, given the way Shannon treated the question in subsequent interviews, we couldn't tell definitively whether or not he was being tongue-in-cheek when he said that to Tribus, and no one we interviewed subsequently shed any more light on it, so that's where we decided to leave things. Thank you for jogging my memory, though.

Thank you! That means a lot to us. I'd offer only two thoughts in response: When Rob and I decided to do the AMA, it was because we knew that this was the kind of community that Shannon would love. So we wanted to set aside some real time to do it and give real answers to people's questions.

The other thing is...boy does it feel good to share some of these pent-up stories! We'e been at this for so long, and there's so many finish lines when you're doing a book. It is honestly a great feeling to be able to share all of this Shannon trivia.

He was more than a little optimistic about artificial intelligence--and about the capacity for machines and robots to do all kinds of things better than human beings. Rather than pontificate, here's Shannon in his own words:

"I believe that today, that we are going to invent something, it’s not going to be the biological process of evolution anymore, it’s going to be the inventive process whereby we invent machines which are smarter than we are and so we’re no longer useful, not only smarter but they last longer and have replaceable parts and they’re so much better. There are so many of these things about the human system, it’s just terrible. The only thing surgeons can do to help you basically is to cut something out of you. They don’t cut it out and put something better in, or a new part in."

In this long-forgotten Vogue profile on him (yeah, the guy was in Vogue!), the piece opens with this sentence: "Dr. Claude E. Shannon...who creates, plays with, stays a think ahead of thinking machines, looks forward to man and machine talking back and forth. For him, why not?"

He even imagined a time when we'd build robots to explore the surface of the moon--and then he went an empathetic step further and thought about what might happen when a robot like that accidentally fell into a lunar hole: "You have to think of problems like this when machines are running around loose in the real world. A machine on the moon must protect itself—not fall down a hole, without your having to tell it not to. It’s the same problem we’re going to have some day with furniture when there are robot housekeepers running around the house, picking up things."

When he was asked about what his goals were, and why he was spending all this time building artificially intelligent mice and chess playing computers, he said he had three goals, "First, how can we give computers a better sensory knowledge of the real world? Second, how can they better tell us what they know, besides printing out the information? And third, how can we get them to react upon the real world?”

And to the obvious question--Did he worry about the singularity?--it seems that didn't bother him in the slightest. Again, here he is in his own words: “My fondest dream is to someday build a machine that really thinks, learns, communicates with humans and manipulates its environment in a fairly sophisticated way...In the long run [the machines] will be a boon to humanity, and the point is to make them so as rapidly as possible...There is much greater empathy between man and machines [today]...we’d like to close it up so that we are actually talking back and forth.”

Just hopping in here to say that this is one of the better AMAs I've read, thanks for answering and not only plugging your book


honestly, used to it. generally two reactions to telling people you're a journalist. one, you're regarded as a figure more powerful and wise than you actually are. two, that guy.

both are largely incorrect but as with most stereotypes there's a shred of truth in there.

really think we as a community need to do more to distinguish journalism from content creation, the latter of which includes simple aggregation. basically, what are you adding to the story, where are you getting it, and why are you adding it?

j schools know how difficult it is to get this craft right and for that reason most subject students to intensive courses on ethics.

i'm rambling a bit. comes with the territory.

again, thanks!

Thank you for the great answer! I'd also suggest that /u/leto78 check out the second essay in the book version of "The Mathematical Theory of Communication," written by Warren Weaver. Weaver translates the ideas, including Shannon's notion of entropy, for non-mathematicians in a very relatable way.

So much hype in the last week, I cant wait to read the book! Question though. Usually these deep researched biographies are written solo. How does one co-write a book like this? Dare I assume it just devolves into chaos, arguing and ultimately a great finished book and a scorched earth friendship?

We didn't hear any stories about the violence, though it was the possibility of it that ultimately led Ed Thorp and Shannon to abandon the use of the wearable device they had built to give them an edge at the roulette tables.

A couple things that emerged from it that might not have been written about before (though again, they may have and we may have just missed it!):

Shannon and Thorp actually bought a regulation roulette table and put it at Shannon's house to figure out the math behind it. That was then used to rig up the computer.

The other co-conspirators were their wives. And this is actually a more interesting and important point about Shannon's life: put simply, his wife Betty was really into everything he was into. We just wrote about this on Scientific American, because we thought it was such an interesting aspect of Shannon's life. Betty went to the casinos with Thorp and Shannon, and she was one of the look-outs as they used this wearable device. Their daughter Peggy said about her parents, "They were gamblers." Definitely true, and the role of Shannon's wife Betty in his creative work is a part Shannon's story that we think is worth appreciating.

well you gotta laugh, funnier anecdote. Einstein came in lost lookin for t'Lavvy, shoulda took him "so chaps...guess who i just took a piss next to?"

You lose what you don't use.

Former Duke ECE grad student here.

First, did you guys talk to Robert Calderbank about Shannon? Calderbank is a professor at Duke and he is one of the top information theory scientists in the world (he discovered space time coding, worked at Bell Labs, and has been at Princeton for some time). I spent some time studying with him and his stories about these guys would astound you. I'd recommend at least emailing him.

Second, were you guys ever able to wrap your mind around the Shannon Limit? I've studied this material for years and I still don't have a proper intuitive grasp on the Shannon limit; particularly, how he derived it. I'm curious whether you guys were able to understand it as non-mathematicians and if so, can you convey your understanding of it?

Great question. I'm not sure if we managed to dig up anything entirely unknown about Shannon's cryptographic work, but I do hope we managed to make that part of his life and career better known, and to show how integrally it was connected to his work on information theory.

Shannon worked on a number of wartime projects for the American government, through Bell Labs' contracts with the military. This enabled him to both avoid being drafted (he wasn't especially keen on fighting) and to contribute to the war effort in a higher-leverage way. One of his more interesting assignments was testing the encryption power of the SIGSALY system, one of the earliest systems of voice encryption. It was thanks in small part to Shannon's help that FDR and Churchill could have classified voice conversations across the ocean during the war.

During his time at the Labs, Shannon also struck up a friendship with Alan Turing, sent to the U.S. on behalf of the British government's own cryptographic effort. Though the two couldn't discuss their work openly, as it was highly classified on both ends, they enjoyed talking AI theory in the Bell Labs cafeteria.

Perhaps Shannon's most ambitious work in this area was his "Mathematical Theory of Cryptography," which proved for the first time that a code constructed using the "one-time pad" system was theoretically unbreakable. As Shannon put it to a later interviewer, it was hard to know what sort of reception his work had within the intelligence bureaucracy: "They were not a very talkative bunch, you could say that. They were the most secretive bunch of people in the world. It’s very hard to even find out for example who are the important cryptographers in this country."

The major impact of this work, we think, was not so much that it broke new ground in cryptography, as that it got Shannon thinking along crucial lines for his information theory breakthrough, published just 3 years after the war ended. For instance, the idea of the redundancy of language was borrowed from the field of codebreaking and put to powerful use in information theory. As Shannon said, "It was a great flow of ideas from one to the other, back and forth."

Right and nerding out on nerd night? To me that's BETTER than Einstein!

We set out to make his story as well-known as we could. So we're going to spend a good chunk of time telling people about him--through written pieces, podcasts, radio, talks, etc. His fingerprints are all over the modern world, and we wish more people knew that!

We haven't sold the movie rights yet (Hollywood, are you listening?), but the good news is that there is a Claude Shannon documentary in the works. It's being created and directed by filmmaker Mark Levinson. He was the brilliant mind behind the movie Particle Fever, and his Claude Shannon doc is going to be fantastic. Mark has the virtue of being both a film-maker and trained scientist--so he's able to get a rich sense of Shannon's story from both of those perspectives. We've been lucky to see some early trailers and clips from it, and people who enjoy those kinds of documentaries are going to really enjoy this one.

In terms of what's next for us, we've both been kicking around a few good ideas for books. But I think what both of us need more than anything is a break. Writing a book like this, and then making sure people hear about it, is utterly exhausting. Our joke is that it took two minds to make sense of Claude Shannon's single mind. Both of us became fathers during the course of writing the book; our daughters were actually born just a week apart! So we're looking forward to some time with them, which will hopefully reveal what the next book should be. Or it'll turn all this Claude Shannon thinking into an illustrated children's book. Can't start too soon!

Do you have any interesting tidbits for /sub/crypto? We'd be interested if you've found anything interesting that's not been well know about his codebreaking effort.

but never said the conversation happened

That seems to contradict Myron Tribus claim from 1971:

“What’s in a name? In the case of Shannon’s measure the naming was not accidental. In 1961 one of us (Tribus) asked Shannon what he had thought about when he had finally confirmed his famous measure. Shannon replied: ‘My greatest concern was what to call it. I thought of calling it ‘information’, but the word was overly used, so I decided to call it ‘uncertainty’. When I discussed it with John von Neumann, he had a better idea. Von Neumann told me, ‘You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place you uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name. In the second place, and more importantly, no one knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.”

Unlike in his 1963 paper, Tribus here provides what appears like a direct quote of Shannon, instead of a paraphrasing?

Almost always the latter.

I don't mean to suggest that Shannon was lazy--like lots of remarkably successful people, he had his bouts of intense and concentrated activity. This was especially true in his younger years--we discuss some accounts from an acquaintance of his at the time he was working on his information theory paper, who says that Shannon would compulsively scribble ideas on napkins, or stare into space in deep concentration, or mention getting up in the middle of the night to work when struck by an idea. So when Shannon was in the midst of one of his highly creative periods, he certainly had a capacity for work to match anyone.

But what really distinguished Shannon was that he didn't try to force it. We called our book A Mind at Play because we think that captures Shannon so well. He asked silly questions, loved tinkering in his workshop, and was often seen unicycling down the hallways of Bell Labs. He had a folder of "Letters I've Procrastinated on for Too Long." And he approached his work in just the same spirit--we called it "play of the adult kind," or play with ideas and concepts.

In other words, the main lesson we take from Shannon's life in this regard is that the people who are most productive on the scale the matters--like, world-changingly productive--don't worry about being productive every single hour. They can work intensely when they need to, but they also know how much is to be gained from letting the mind wander.

One of the things that gave us some relief was just how clear Shannon's paper was—and that reflected, we think, the clarity of thought that went into them. As we said before, we're not trained in engineering or mathematics, but we were able to get through that paper and understand it—which says way more about Shannon than it does about us.

Just a bit of history too: His colleagues agreed with you. When it came, John Pierce said, "It came like a bomb." Because Shannon had poured so much into it (over 10 years of work) and because he had told no one, people were just awe-struck by it.

We wrote the biography because we do think he's underrated as a thinker (in part because he preferred to remain that way rather than become a scientific celebrity). There's also a film on the way that should help more people know about him. In a funny way though, I think the best thing people could do to propagate information about him is to live by the values he embodied: curiosity, playfulness, a sincere commitment to research, a humorous streak. If more people become inspired by Shannon and his work, I imagine that the information about him will spread on its own (no pun intended).

I mean, who isn't into pirates?

But I'd just add to Jimmy's comment below that Shannon's favorite story as a child was Poe's "The Gold-Bug," which is about an amateur treasure-hunter using code-breaking to crack a pirate's coded letter and uncover a buried treasure. It helped to spark Shannon's love of codes--and perhaps also a love of pirates?

Bad bot

We cover this around page 162 of our book, where we talk about Shannon's information theory paper and its immediate reception. What we think actually occurred is that the conversation did not happen, but that Shannon was asked to comment on it in interviews at at lectures very soon after his paper became famous. He generally brushed the questions away, or laughed about them, but never said the conversation happened. So the story doesn't tell us anything about Shannon or Von Neumann, but it does tell us something interesting about how Shannon's paper was received.

So this was one of the more surprising parts of the research: we actually didn't uncover too many Hamming-and-Shannon stories. And, honestly, it might be that we just didn't ask the question clearly enough of people who knew both of them, because in most cases, the people we were talking to knew Shannon somehow and we wanted to know about their interactions with him.

We did speak to someone (Brockway MacMillan) who had the office next door, but he didn't mention Hamming either.

Obviously the Shannon story can't be told without discussing the famous Hamming talk "You and your research." I'd recommend everyone interested in Shannon read it (http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html).

It's thought-provoking, though I will say there are parts we agree with and parts we don't. We actually quote a full passage from the speech in the conclusion of the book:

One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. If you think you can't, almost surely you are not going to. Courage is one of the things that Shannon had supremely. You have only to think of his major theorem. He wants to create a method of coding, but he doesn't know what to do so he makes a random code. Then he is stuck. And then he asks the impossible question, ``What would the average random code do?'' He then proves that the average code is arbitrarily good, and that therefore there must be at least one good code. Who but a man of infinite courage could have dared to think those thoughts? That is the characteristic of great scientists; they have courage. They will go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and continue to think.

We agree with that, and we think Hamming actually makes an interesting and often overlooked point about Shannon's work. Because he was so playful, it's easy to miss how much courage it took to do what he did.

Hamming goes on to talk about how he predicted that Shannon leaving Bell Labs would be the end of his scientific career. It's an often discussed passage:

Shannon, I believe, ruined himself. In fact when he left Bell Labs, I said, "That's the end of Shannon's scientific career.'" I received a lot of flak from my friends who said that Shannon was just as smart as ever. I said, "Yes, he'll be just as smart, but that's the end of his scientific career,'' and I truly believe it was.

We take issue with this. It's popular to point out that his work after 1948 didn't rise to the same level as information theory. But that's an almost comically high bar to meet! The truth is that Shannon did a lot of writing and publishing in the 1950s and 1960s, including the very work that would show how his 1948 paper could be applied. He also helped to set the agendas in several related fields, such as artificial intelligence, computer chess and robotics.

This is a debate that could go on forever, I suspect. Did Shannon hang it up after 1948? Or did he consciously choose to move onto other pastures? We'd vote the latter; Hamming might say the former.

The fact that we can have such a discussion--Did Shannon's later work come close to a transformative paper that defined a field?--suggests that its a good-problem-to-have kind of discussion. Shannon, I imagine, would've laughed at anyone having such a discussion and gone back to doing whatever problem he wanted to work on.

Wish we had spoken to you before we went to press!!


I swear I haven't seen someone be this fucking toxic on reddit in a bit and that's saying something. These guys put out some hard work. You wanna criticize them? Buy the fucking book and read it. Then come back to us and speak. You dick. Reddit needs a guilding equivalent for downvotes because of people like you. Jfc.