среда, 10 апреля 2013 г.

A Passionate Juggler Who rivals the Einstein

Писал тут в целях обучения эссе о Шенноне, и, поскольку его довольно высоко оценили, решил поделиться с более широкой аудиторией.

Speaking about the Internet and about information in general, it is necessary to remember one of the gurus of an age of information technologies – Claude Elwood Shannon. The first part of this essay includes short version of the biography of this genius, so it can be skipped or found on Wikipedia [4] in a longer version (through I’ve got my information from other sources [1, 2]).

What is remarkable for our case is that Claude Shannon was born and grew in the State of Michigan (Petosk, Gaylord). Having entered the University of Michigan, he was specializing at the same time on electrical equipment and mathematics. Then he continued study in MIT where in 1938 he have got the master degree on electrical equipment, and in 1940 became doctor in mathematics.

For 20 years of his creative activity Shannon wrote more than 130 works, but the world glory was brought to the scientist by "The Mathematical Theory of Communication", written in a co-authorship with Warren Weaver and published in 1948. The research goal was to find the best way of transmission of messages by the telephone or cable communication channels, being under the influence of hindrances (electric noise). Shannon made revolutionary discovery, having shown that it is necessary to transform a transmitted analog signal to a digital code. To give strict mathematical justification to the idea, he took "bit" as a unit of information, having used the term offered (in his words) by his colleague John W. Tukey from Bell Labs. He also defined amount of information through entropy. It allowed him to formulate the fundamental theorem of the capacity of the noisy communication channel characterized by a limit of speed of information transfer excess of which inevitably leads to mistakes. The theorem states that it is possible to come to this limit as near as possible with as much as small probability of a mistake if the transmitted data encoded appropriately.

One of colleagues of the scientist wrote about value of its works: "Einstein showed us that there is energy in each atom, and also what we can do with that energy and how to get it. But there is a limit: you can't overstep the bounds of e=mc^2 equation. Shannon did something similar in the information transmitting theory. His formula shows how to transfer the message when you have certain capacity of a signal and certain width of the band-pass. He turned transmission of messages into science, having explained to us what it is possible to do and what is impossible".

In our days Shannon's ideas work everywhere where information is stored, processed and transferred and without them there would be no satellite communications, cell phones and e-mails. We don't notice his theorem as we don't notice air round us.

I was always sympathetic to this concrete researcher and many people like him because of their approach to science and life in general. I am only 34 years old, but as a scientist myself I through the years came to conclusion that to do something really cool, no matter in which area, you need to have passion. Intellect, education, discipline, equipment, and budget – all of those are necessary, but it is not enough. Science is not a kind of work that you can get done in working hours and forget about it – it is style of life, when you always think, it turns your brains inside out no matter what you do: eating, sleeping, playing computer games, etc. You can’t live such a life without passion. This passion (if it is there) often leads you to some ideas or even inventions which seems to be irrelevant to your work. In my experience it was culinary recipe from some equation. And vice versa – you can unexpectedly get the right idea for your research while doing something irrelevant. For me it was really unexpected when I was counting my heart-beat rate thinking how to draw precious dynamic screen saver in 3D-graphics and…bang! – the idea of how to mathematically model behavior of online students and tutors for my PhD research emerged. Of course my achievements cannot be compared with ones of Shannon, but the principle is the same.

Aside from theory of communications, Claude Shannon was one of the first who thought that machines can play games and educate by themselves. He wrote a bunch of papers about it and I was lucky enough to read one on them – “Game playing machines”. I am from Russia and I read this article in Russian, it was a translation published in 1960 and as a gamer, programmer and scientist I ordered the old and expensive book where this article is published alongside with papers of such gurus as John von Neumann and Gordon Moore. [3] In 1958 Shannon made a mechanical mouse with capability to find an exit out of labyrinth. He built the machine which was able to “read thoughts” while playing heads-and-tails with people (people cannot avoid some pattern choosing between head and tail, and machine can use that fact). He was a juggler and built a juggling machine. He wrote “The general theory of juggling” which however hasn’t helped him to beat his own record (juggling with four balls). He also invented rocket-powered flying discs, a motorized pogo stick, and a machine that could solve the Rubik's Cube puzzle. [4] He was always eager to show his “toys” to friends, colleagues and journalists. He developed a set of theories of stock trading. He was also a poet.

A talented scientist who has the power to change the world often can be recognized by looking at all his works, not only works in some particular area, because passion always drives genius in different directions simultaneously.


1. Polunov U. L. From an abacus to the computer: destinies of people and machines. Volume 1. Russian edition. Moscow. 2004. Language: Russian.
2. Computer News. Seriy S. “Claude Elwood Shannon” Page. Language: Russian. URL: http://www.kv.by/archive/index1998211801.htm. Accessed 3/13/2013.
3. Cybernetic collection 1. Shannon C. A. “Game playing machines”. Publishing house of foreign literature. Moscow. 1960. Language: Russian.
4. Wikipedia “Claude Shannon” Page. URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Shannon. Accessed 3/13/2013.

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