A Mind at Play
The life and times of one of the foremost intellects of the twentieth century: Claude Shannon—the neglected architect of the Information Age, whose insights stand behind every computer built, email sent, video streamed, and webpage loaded.Claude Shannon was a groundbreaking polymath, a brilliant tinkerer, and a digital pioneer. He constructed a fleet of customized unicycles and a flamethrowing trumpet, outfoxed Vegas casinos, and built juggling robots. He also wrote the seminal text of the digital revolution, which has been called “the Magna Carta of the Information Age.” His discoveries would lead contemporaries to compare him to Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. His work anticipated by decades the world we’d be living in today—and gave mathematicians and engineers the tools to bring that world to pass.In this elegantly written, exhaustively researched biography, Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman reveal Claude Shannon’s full story for the first time. It’s the story of a small-town Michigan boy whose career stretched from the era of room-sized computers powered by gears and string to the age of Apple. It’s the story of the origins of our digital world in the tunnels of MIT and the “idea factory” of Bell Labs, in the “scientists’ war” with Nazi Germany, and in the work of Shannon’s collaborators and rivals, thinkers like Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Vannevar Bush, and Norbert Wiener.And it’s the story of Shannon’s life as an often reclusive, always playful genius. With access to Shannon’s family and friends, A Mind at Play brings this singular innovator and creative genius to life.

A Mind at Play Details

TitleA Mind at Play
Author
FormatHardcover
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseJul 18th, 2017
PublisherSimon & Schuster
ISBN1476766681
ISBN-139781476766683
Number of pages384 pages
Rating
GenreBiography, Science, Technology, Nonfiction, History, Mathematics, Computer Science, Autobiography, Memoir, Environment, Nature

A Mind at Play Review

  • Peter Mcloughlin
    July 27, 2017
    A good biography of an overlooked but seminal figure of physics and mathematics, Claude Shannon. His 1948 work on communication and information laid the foundation for the digital world we all inhabit figures like Shannon, Turing, and Von Neuman made modern computing possible. Shannon was an introvert but also a playful wiseguy in his work but mostly avoided the limelight. His work was general and eclectic basically anything that interested him he would work on. Nice biography of a curious chara A good biography of an overlooked but seminal figure of physics and mathematics, Claude Shannon. His 1948 work on communication and information laid the foundation for the digital world we all inhabit figures like Shannon, Turing, and Von Neuman made modern computing possible. Shannon was an introvert but also a playful wiseguy in his work but mostly avoided the limelight. His work was general and eclectic basically anything that interested him he would work on. Nice biography of a curious character.
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  • Brian Clegg
    July 3, 2017
    If you are familiar with the history of computing, there are a few names that you'll know well enough biographically to turn them into real people. Babbage and Lovelace, Turing and von Neumann, Gates and Jobs. But there's one of the greats who may conjure up nothing more than a name - Claude Shannon. If Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman get this right, we're going to get to know him a lot better - and get a grip on his information theory, which sounds simple in principle, but can be difficult to get yo If you are familiar with the history of computing, there are a few names that you'll know well enough biographically to turn them into real people. Babbage and Lovelace, Turing and von Neumann, Gates and Jobs. But there's one of the greats who may conjure up nothing more than a name - Claude Shannon. If Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman get this right, we're going to get to know him a lot better - and get a grip on his information theory, which sounds simple in principle, but can be difficult to get your head around.If you haven't heard of Claude Shannon, you ought to have. He was responsible for two key parts of the theoretical foundations that lie beneath the computing and internet technology most of use everyday. Arguably, without Shannon's theory, for example, it would be impossible to slump down in front of Netflix and watch a video on demand.I suspect one reason that Shannon's work is less familiar than it should be is that it lies buried deep in the ICT architecture. I was primarily a programmer for a number of years, but as someone writing applications - programs for people to use - I didn't have to give any thought to Shannon's theories. They were embodied by engineers at a lower level than I ever needed to access. In fact, I'm ashamed to say that when I was programming, though I could give you chapter and verse on Bill Gates, I'd never heard of Shannon, even though he was still alive back then.What Soni and Goodman do really well is to give us a feel for Shannon, the man. The writing has an impressive ability to put is into the home town of Claude Shannon, or the corridors of Bell Labs as he rides his unicycle along them. At first glance, Shannon might seem quite similar to Richard Feynman in his combination of playfulness with amazing insight. But it soon becomes clear that Shannon was a far less likeable character - more introverted, dismissive of those he considered an intellectual inferior and with no real interest in helping his country in the war or with codebreaking, more undertaking this if and only if he could be offered something he found mentally stimulating. Soni and Goodman seem to find his obsession with juggling, unicycles and building strange contraptions endearing, but I'm not sure that's really how it come across.I am giving this book four stars for the biographical side, which works very well, but there are some issues. One is hyperbole - there is no doubt that Shannon was a genius and made a huge contribution to our understanding of information, but we really don't need to be told how incredible he was quite as often as this book does. At one point he is compared with Einstein - with Einstein arguably coming across as the less significant of the two - this seems to miss that part of Einstein's genius was the breadth of his work from statistical mechanics through relativity to quantum physics. While Shannon's personal interests were broad, his important work lacked that range.The bigger issue was that I had hoped for a scientific biography, but I only really got a biography with a bit of science thrown in. The coverage of Shannon's information theory was (ironically) rarely very informative. I would have loved to have had the same level of exploration of the theory as we get of the person - but it's just not there. Of course, the theory isn't ignored, with a few pages given to each of the two big breakthroughs - but there could have been a whole lot more to make what can be a difficult concept more accessible.I ought to stress that using the term hyperbole should not in any sense reduce the importance of Shannon's work. Hearing of Shannon's initial inspiration that logic and electrical circuitry were equivalent comes across rather like Darwin (and Wallace)'s inspiration on evolution by natural selection. It appears blindingly obvious, once you are told about it, but it took a long time for anyone to do so - and it's hugely important. Shannon's second big step, which provides a generalised model for information transmission with noise and makes the whole understanding of information communication mathematical was inspirational and up there with Turing's universal computer. What's more, it has applications well outside the IT world in the way it provides a link between information and entropy. If there were a maths Nobel prize, as Soni and Goodman suggest, Shannon definitely should have won one.This is a man we needed to find out more about - and we certainly do. I just wish there had been more detail of the science in there too.
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  • Jacqui
    July 9, 2017
    Despite likely being the most brilliant man you've never heard of with the most comprehensive unknown impact on the advancement of technology, Claude Shannon, star of Jimmie Sonni and Rob Goodman's A Mind at Play (Simon and Schuster 2017), was by all accounts a normal kid through high school and college. Sure, he could send Morse code with his body (you'll have to read the book to see how that's accomplished) and he had a passion for solving complex math problems most people couldn't even read, Despite likely being the most brilliant man you've never heard of with the most comprehensive unknown impact on the advancement of technology, Claude Shannon, star of Jimmie Sonni and Rob Goodman's A Mind at Play (Simon and Schuster 2017), was by all accounts a normal kid through high school and college. Sure, he could send Morse code with his body (you'll have to read the book to see how that's accomplished) and he had a passion for solving complex math problems most people couldn't even read, but that changed when he was discovered by a string of mentors who helped him focus his intellect."...who could neither explain himself to others nor cared to."It didn't hurt that he lived contemporaneously with such brilliant minds as Alan Turing, George Boole (of Boolean Logic fame), Albert Einstein, and anthropologist Levi Strauss. By the time he died, Shannon had produced a wide variety of ground-breaking research, taught at MIT, would be known as the Father of Information Theory, and was remembered for his prominence in engineering, mathematics, and cryptography."To picture Shannon at these times is to see a thin man tapping a pencil against his knee at absurd hours.""Prone to writing down stray questions on napkins at restaurants in the middle of meals."Understanding this book is easier though not necessary if you have a basic understanding of algebra. The authors share a limited number of formulas and do an admirable job of simplifying them to easily understood terms."Switches aren't just switches but a metaphor for math [I get this one but not too well].""Logic just like a machine was a tool for democratizing force: built with enough precision and skill it could multiply the power of the gifted and talented."The fact that the book is at times long-winded and meandering (like discussing the history of the now-defunct Bell Labs) is a reflection of the authors' successful effort to decode a man who is often distracted and chaotic in his personal and professional life. Overall, if you like Isaacson's biography of Einstein or Nasar's A Beautiful Mind about John Nash, you'll love this book. If you like stories of the genius mind at play, how it unravels puzzles and solves life's unique challenges, you'll want to read this story.
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  • Scott Hartley
    July 23, 2017
    Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman take us through the life of one of the most important, but overlooked, figures behind today's Information Age. Many have become familiar with the likes of Alan Turing, the computer scientist and mathematician who cracked the ENIGMA code, but few know as much about Claude Shannon, who was his contemporary on America's side of the pond. Shannon drew remarkable connections between logic, mathematics, philosophy and his passion for mechanics and tinkering. He made fundamen Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman take us through the life of one of the most important, but overlooked, figures behind today's Information Age. Many have become familiar with the likes of Alan Turing, the computer scientist and mathematician who cracked the ENIGMA code, but few know as much about Claude Shannon, who was his contemporary on America's side of the pond. Shannon drew remarkable connections between logic, mathematics, philosophy and his passion for mechanics and tinkering. He made fundamental discoveries linking Boolean logic and what physical circuits could handle. This allowed for the basis of Boolean values (zeros and ones) in 32 or 64 character strings we now know as bits. This is what unlocked the ability for the computing and Information Age to begin. And he came up with this discovery in his Master's thesis, no less. A brilliant man, and a brilliant book. It's not a farfetched claim to say that Claude Shannon is one man behind everything you've ever touched in the digital world, and perhaps ever will. I recommend Soni and Goodman's book.
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  • Dennis
    July 23, 2017
    Shannon, as other great scientists, was curious, passionate, and dedicated: this book paints perfectly his figure.As for other biographies - one above all Walter Isaacson's "Einstein", that recently shaped the NatGeo TV series "Genius" - I really advice this book for the ones who studied the topics - in this case, Information Theory - and wants to understand how it was conceived, and gain a greater insight about it, as well as for the ones who don't even know who Shannon is, but are interested i Shannon, as other great scientists, was curious, passionate, and dedicated: this book paints perfectly his figure.As for other biographies - one above all Walter Isaacson's "Einstein", that recently shaped the NatGeo TV series "Genius" - I really advice this book for the ones who studied the topics - in this case, Information Theory - and wants to understand how it was conceived, and gain a greater insight about it, as well as for the ones who don't even know who Shannon is, but are interested in science milestones and the life of great scientists. A consideration for those who did not study the above mentioned topic: here the father of information theory is depicted as the genius he truly was.Despite the fact that sometimes unfair comparisons are made (for example with respect to Einstein or others, in terms of tho was the "most brilliant" scientist), the authors did not exaggerate the impact that Shannon 1948 paper - A Mathematical Theory of Communication - had on the study of those topics and on the life of future generations of scientists.Even if such comparisons are quite useless in science, it is not undeserved (especially in order to make the idea for all the readers) the match between the brilliant scientist and juggler breakthrough [Shannon's] and other major discoveries, that are not product of sudden enlightenment, but of years of studies and of the most original and brave thinking, alongside the constant seeking for a underlying logic that rules the world as we know it.
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