Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What's The 411?

James Gleick is one of the top science writers for a popular audience.  Even so, I found his bestseller The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood hard going at times.  I read the first half (when I borrowed it from the library) a few years ago, and only just finished it recently (when I borrowed it from a different library).

Science has always been about information, but Gleick tries to make it a tangible thing, and this book its biography as it were.  He starts with jungle drums in Africa, which were an effective means of spreading information far and wide.  Different beats told different stories, and there was a lot of redundancy built in so you wouldn't miss the message.

From there we get writing and telegraphs and telephones and computers and whatever else is next.  And all along, various people have not just added to faster and better ways to communicate, but also to the theory of just what is information--Charles Babbage, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing and so on.  Much of Gleick's book deals with short bios of these people.

And when we get to the technical stuff, we're not just talking about a dry lecture--information can get very wet.  Biology, for instance, used to be thought of as the study of pulsating life, but with Watson and Crick and the double helix, we can also see life as a set of instructions to create more life.  (Gleick even goes into Richards Dawkins' "memes"--self-replicating information that spreads through culture.  There's a page about my friend Jon Hein and his "Jump The Shark" meme, incidentally.)

Making the story more complex, we've got certain issues that always need to be dealt with--compression, correction and that old demon entropy.  When you think about it, it's sort of an odd idea for a book--if Gleick hadn't already been a name author, I doubt he could have sold it.  But now here it is, being read by millions (well, thousands, anyway)--Gleick is spreading information about information.

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