Past Member

Claude E. Shannon



From the New York Times, December 30, 2001:

Halfway through the last century, information became a thing. It became a commodity, a force—a quantity to be measured and analyzed. It's what our world runs on. Information is the gold and the fuel. We measure it in bits. That's largely because of Claude Shannon.

Shannon is the father of information theory, an actual science devoted to messages and signals and communication and computing. The advent of information theory can be pretty well pinpointed: July 1948, the Bell System Technical Journal, his landmark paper titled simply ''A Mathematical Theory of Communication.'' Before that, no such theory existed. Suddenly, there it was, almost full grown.

To treat information scientifically, engineers needed to answer the kinds of questions they were asking about matter and energy: how much? How fast? For fundamental particles, an irreducible unit of measure, Shannon proposed the word ''bits''—as shorthand (suitably compressed) for ''binary digits.'' A bit is a choice. On or off. Yes or no. One or zero. Shannon saw that these pairs are all the same. Information is fungible: smoke signals and semaphores, telegraph and television, all channels carrying bits.

James Gleick, "Bit Player," New York Times, December 30, 2001

Dates at IAS

School of Mathematics