Saturday, April 30, 2016

Claude Shannon at 100: who are his living peers?

Claude Shannon was born exactly 100 years ago, on April 30th, 1916. After I quick read the Wikipedia page, it seems to me that he is rightfully considered a father of the digital age and one of the greatest 20th century engineers whose work was important enough to impact science, too.

He died in 2001.

(Interestingly enough, an important "she" from my undergraduate years was born exactly 40 years ago, i.e. 60 years after Shannon. Congratulations. In Czechia, April 30th is the day of burning of the witches, see some videos, although they're mostly less real than those in Salem, MA. For a May 1st romantic event, read Mácha's poem "Máj".)

Shannon was born in Michigan. His father was a self-made businessman (at some district level, I could describe my dad in the same way) and his mother was a teacher.

As a kid, he was quickly seen to be deeply interested and good in electric and mechanical things. Edison was his hero. Shannon remained atheist and apolitical throughout his life. He quickly began to investigate circuits, the ability of logical gates to represent everything (he may have been the first one who made such "universalist" insights). He has done lots of work related to relays, cryptography and codebreaking, transmission of information, and application of some information concepts in biology etc.

His degrees were from MIT and he was later affiliated with IAS Princeton, too (where he was meeting the most famous physicists, among others).

The Shannon entropy is named after him. I've always consider this formula unspectacular given the fact that it was really a simplified, slightly differently interpreted, version of the von Neumann entropy that had existed before. And von Neumann actually recommended Shannon to call his formula for the Shannon information "Shannon entropy", too.

Shannon interacted both with von Neumann and with Alan Turing. These people made some of the most fundamental contributions to the classical architecture of computers as we have known them since the war. Each of them could do everything that they did collectively, I feel ;-), but it just happens that they had to share it in some way.

Shannon has won numerous prizes. I was intrigued by the Alfred Noble Prize – this is a cute name for an engineering prize that surely makes people confuse it with the Nobel Prize – and the Claude Shannon Prize that he won in 1972 – thanks to this particular success, he may probably be considered the father of recursive algorithms, too. ;-)

But it's even cooler to look at his various hobbies and innovative pranks. He played chess and, more nontrivially, he was good enough at juggling and unicycling. These are bizarre skills and I think that not too many theorists are good at such things. But he also constructed the very useful ultimate machine that, after you turn it on by a switch, opens and turns itself off by a mechanical hand. ;-)

He created an artificial mouse-sized mouse that is able to go through mazes. It may repeat the last maze if it were successful. And it's trying new trajectories if this method fails. He also created a machine that can solve Rubik's cube; see a modern update of this device. It's nontrivial to write a program to do so (my guess is that a big enough fraction of programmers can do it, I probably could) – but to add the mechanical part to this invention, that requires some unusual skills. How many people in the world and how many TRF readers could do it today? Are these two numbers equal to each other?

Shannon also coinvented the world's first wearable computer that could improve your skills while playing roulette; and the Minivac 601 trainer of computer skills for the business people (video in CZ).

He was good at many similar things. Which engineering-style man (or woman?) in the world today would you consider Shannon's counterpart? I guess that there are numerous people who have earned vastly more money than Shannon did (the information age was just getting started when Shannon was younger and the opportunities weren't quite "privatized" at those times yet). But were they equally technically skillful and innovative in the engineering itself, or were they just better in finding some simple enough recipes to make a lot of bucks?

Do you know some people who are not too famous but who are comparably smart and skillful to Shannon?

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