Claude Shannon: The Juggling Poet Who Gave Us the Information Age

He will never have the name recognition of a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, but Claude Shannon did every bit as much to wire the world. And his sense of play was highly contagious.

The device you’re reading this on, the laptops we typed it on, the internet that brought it to you: we owe them all, to an impressive extent, to perhaps the most important scientist you’ve never heard of. His name was Claude Shannon, and his work laid the foundations of the Information Age.

Much of that work took place in the ’30s and ’40s, when computers were still the size of rooms and an electronic repository of all the world’s information was still a far-off dream. But Shannon’s discoveries at Bell Labs and MIT were pivotal steps to turning that dream into reality.

In 1937, at the age of 21, he showed how binary circuits could do logic, could even appear to “think”—the discovery behind all of our digital computers today. In 1948, at the age of 32, he published “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” a paper that has been called “the Magna Carta of the Information Age”—in other words, a founding document that inaugurated an era. In that paper, Shannon invented the bit, the objective measurement of the information carried by any message. He showed how digital codes could allow us to send messages faster, cheaper, and with flawless accuracy. Today, Shannon’s information theory is embedded in our phones, our emails, our satellite TVs, our space probes still tethered to the earth with thin cords of 0’s and 1’s. And he followed up his work on information with wide-ranging research into everything from AI to investing, from robotics to the physics of juggling to beating the house at roulette.

Shannon’s work left such a lasting mark on generations of American engineers and mathematicians because it resonated with their fundamental values. Simplicity matters. Elegant math was forceful math. Inessential items, superfluous writing, extra work—all of them should be discarded. One of Shannon’s contemporaries put it in more poetic terms: “[His] ideas form a beautiful symphony, with repetition of themes and growing power that still form an inspiration to all of us. This is mathematics at its very best.”

In 1948, Shannon’s theoretical work posed as many questions as it answered. The striking feature of his paper is the reverberation, the way in which it inaugurated an entire field of study, a body of dialogue and deliberation that would long outlive its author. “It was like an earthquake and the aftershocks haven’t finished yet!” observed Anthony Ephremides, an information theorist of a later era. Few papers can claim an impact so enduring (it has more than 91,000 citations and counting!), and it’s no exaggeration to say that, though information theory had important antecedents prior to Shannon, the formal study of information begins in earnest with his work. As one writer would put it, many decades later, “For many scientists, Shannon’s discovery was the equivalent of waking up and finding marble on their doorsteps.”

The marble he unearthed would be carved by others; Shannon’s work condemned him, to some extent, to a legacy as an antecedent. He is one of the authors of the information architecture that now binds the planet—but he will likely never approach the name recognition of a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Beyond his own aversion to such attention, his anonymity could be chalked up to the distance between his work and the technologies we use every day. When a world-class engineer says that “all the advanced signal processing that enables us to send high-speed data was done as an outgrowth of Claude Shannon’s work on information theory,” the statement rings true to people in the know—and means very little to the untrained.

But in writing the first biography of Shannon, we found that there’s a great deal to learn not only from his discoveries, but from his example—not just from what he did, but from how he achieved it. The value of great scientists to laypeople doesn’t only lie in the fruits of their research, but in the models they offer of disciplined creativity and the pursuit of excellence. What can we learn from that side of Claude Shannon’s life?

For one thing, Shannon’s body of work is a useful corrective to our era of unprecedented specialization. His work is wide-ranging in the best sense, and perhaps more than any 20th century intellect of comparable stature, he resists easy categorization. Was he a mathematician? Yes. Was he an engineer? Yes. Was he a juggler, unicyclist, machinist, futurist, and gambler? Yes, and then some. Shannon never acknowledged the contradictions in his fields of interest; he simply went wherever his omnivorous curiosity led him. So it was entirely consistent for him to jump from information theory to artificial intelligence to chess to juggling to gambling—it simply didn’t occur to him that investing his talents in a single field made any sense at all.

The great Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov put it like this in 1963:

In our age, when human knowledge is becoming more and more specialized, Claude Shannon is an exceptional example of a scientist who combines deep abstract mathematical thought with a broad and at the same time very concrete understanding of vital problems of technology. He can be considered equally well as one of the greatest mathematicians and as one of the greatest engineers of the last few decades.

This indifference to seeming contradictions extended to the way he lived his life. He had the option of worldwide fame, yet he preferred to remain largely anonymous. He wrote pathbreaking papers, then, unsatisfied with their present state, postponed them indefinitely in favor of more pressing curiosities. He made himself wealthy by studying the movements of markets and the potential of start-ups, yet he lived with conspicuous modesty. He reached the heights of the ivory tower, with all the laurels and professorial chairs to prove it, but felt no shame playing games built for children and writing tracts on juggling. He was passionately curious, but also, at times, unapologetically lazy. He was among the most productive, honored minds of his era, and yet he gave the appearance that he would chuck it all overboard for the chance to tinker in his gadget room.

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His style of work was characterized by such lightness and levity, in fact, that we can sometimes forget the depth and difficulty of the problems he took on. For all the fun he was having, Shannon tackled some of the most significant scientific questions of his era and worked at the boundaries of math, computer science, and engineering—in some cases helping to firm up what the boundaries were!

Such an approach took courage—a quality about Shannon captured in the words of one of his Bell Labs officemates, Richard Hamming. In a now-famous talk called “You and Your Research,” Hamming outlines for a group of students the attributes that make for first-rate research in mathematics and other disciplines. He singles out Shannon for special mention, and notes that part of what gave Shannon’s work force was his bravery:

Courage is one of the things that Shannon had supremely … 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 go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and continue to think.

We don’t usually associate the fields of mathematics or engineering with the ancient virtue of courage. But Shannon’s wasn’t the usual contribution to those fields, either, and though he surely would have been the last to admit this, it took a great deal of daring to think as Shannon thought and to live as Shannon lived.

Importantly, his courage was joined to an ego so self-contained and self-sufficient that it looked, from certain angles, like the absence of ego. This was the keystone quality of Shannon, the one that enabled all the others. At almost every opportunity for self-promotion, Shannon demurred. Mathematicians worry about spending time on problems of insufficient difficulty, what they derisively call “toy problems”; Claude Shannon worked with actual toys in public!

And that is connected, we think, to the other great hallmark of Shannon’s life: the value of finding joy in work. We expect our greatest minds to bear the deepest scars; we prefer our geniuses tortured. But with the exception of a few years in his twenties when Shannon passed through what seems like a moody, possibly even depressive, stage, his life and work seemed to be one continuous game. He was, at once, abnormally brilliant and normally human.

He did none of this consciously; he wasn’t straining to give the appearance of fun. Shannon simply delighted in the various curiosities that grabbed his attention, and the testimony of those around him suggests that it was a delight that, like his mind, was polymorphous. He could find himself lost in the intricacies of an engineering problem, and then, just as suddenly, become captivated by a chess position. He had a flair for the dramatic and the artistic; we see it in his papers and in his more playful creations, like a robotic maze-solving mouse, a flaming trumpet, or a fleet of customized unicycles. He turned arid and technical sciences into vast and captivating puzzles, the solving of which was play of the adult kind. It says something about Claude Shannon and his instinct for play that his work found its way into both the pages of journals and the halls of museums.

In one sense, it may be impossible to draw anything from this. Shannon’s enjoyment seems sui generis. But perhaps his example can still remind us of the vast room for lightness in fields usually discussed in sober tones. These days it’s rare to talk about math and science as opportunities to revel in discovery. We speak, instead, about their practical benefits—to society, the economy, our prospects for employment. STEM courses are the means to job security, not joy. Studying them becomes the academic equivalent of eating your vegetables—something valuable, and state sanctioned, but vaguely distasteful.

This seems, at least to us, not as Shannon would have wanted it. Shannon was trained as an engineer—a man more attuned to practicality than most—and yet he was drawn to the idea that knowledge was valuable for its own sake and that discovery was pleasurable in its own right. As he himself put it, “I’ve been more interested in whether a problem is exciting than what it will do.” One of his contemporaries, remarking on the peculiarity of a world-class mathematician with a serious interest in unicycles, put Shannon’s love of these strange machines specifically, as well as his passions generally, in perspective: “He was not interested in forming a company to build unicycles. He was interested in finding out what made unicycles fun and finding out more about them.”

And his approach inspired a generation of remarkable innovation. Consider the words of Shannon’s student Bob Gallager, describing the mood of the minds working on information theory around the same time as Shannon:

Shannon’s puzzle-solving research style was in full swing when I was an MIT graduate student. Intellectualism was in the air. Everyone wanted to understand mathematics and physics as well as communication. Starting companies, making millions, developing real applications was secondary … Our role models were relaxed, curious, and had time to reflect.

We might be hard-pressed to find an academic department today fitting that description—but surely it is a worthwhile ambition.

Toward the end of his life, Shannon still maintained his cheekiness, his insouciance toward even the highest of the highbrow. After promising Scientific American an article on the physics of juggling, his attention drifted—and he chanced on an entirely unrelated project. From that came this note to his editor, written in 1981:

Dear Dennis:

You probably think I have been fritterin’, I say fritterin’, away my time while my juggling paper is languishing on the shelf. This is only half true. I have come to two conclusions recently:

1) I am a better poet than scientist. 2) Scientific American should have a poetry column.

You may disagree with both of these, but I enclose “A Rubric on Rubik Cubics” for you.

Claude E. Shannon

P.S. I am still working on the juggling paper.

What followed was a 70-line poem on the subject of Rubik’s cubes, “sung to ‘Ta-Ra-Ra! Boom-De-Ay!’ (with an eight bar chorus)” and complete with footnotes. And it was clear from the rhyme and rhythm that the author had spent time playing with the words on his tongue, rearranging them in his head, singing them aloud to himself. The project was seriously unserious.

And the juggling article? Like so many artifacts of Shannon’s mind, it acquired dust. Shannon’s attention had shifted, and whatever he needed to say about juggling had been said, at least to his satisfaction. He did, however, have one regret about the episode. He was disappointed that his poem never made it into the pages of Scientific American.

Laughing, he declared, “That’s one of my great works!”

From A MIND AT PLAY by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman.  Copyright © 2017 by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman.  Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.