Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Information by James Gleick - Book Review

James Gleick, noted science writer, has the capacity to take the long view of the dawn of the Universe at the same time he focuses down to the sub-microscopic levels of molecular biology. He takes the reader to the edges of the universe, just seconds after the Big Bang and to the deepest part of a a cell, the chromosome, and finds they're the same place. His large and oh-so-readable book The Information, treats information at the most abstract, content free levels while also examining the world Encyclopedia, the efforts to create a compendium of all the world's knowledge, while differentiating between knowledge and information. In doing this, he helps each reader examine issues like “what makes us human,” and “how we find meaning.” While all this might sound daunting, Gleick is such a fine writer, that the impossible idea become plausible, and the difficult becomes approachable. While, as a reader and a thinker, I must own my lifelong difficulties with math and science, Gleick makes me think more deeply without wearing out his welcome. Other writers present formulas and mathematical ideas in the form of mathematical writing, and my eyes glaze over. Gleick manages always to make me think I'm, at least, on the edge of understanding, and then draws parallels that turn the wonder into insight.

Introducing the inventor of the transistor, Claude Shannon (1916 – 2001), known as the father of information theory, as the central character in his story, Gleick then takes the reader on a journey that leads back to African drum languages, to the beginning of language and, perforce, thought. Gleick makes it clear that without language there is no thought nor thought without language. It seems to be completely true that “in the beginning was the word,” if not in a Biblical sense, then in a real life statement of the beginnings of understanding. In order to make Shannon's contributions clear and to point in directions still not fully realized, but opened by Shannon's work, Gleick takes us back to the beginnings of time, before conscious thought and the development of language, let alone writing.

In every case, as nearly as I can tell, thought, expression, and the invention of technology link together such that great leaps can only happen when they three coincide. For example, Gleick tells the story of early nineteenth century British mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, who invented, at least in his head, a huge, mechanical calculating machine which was never built because the technology required reached beyond what could be developed and built at the time. Nevertheless, Babbage is considered to be the “father of the computer,” although such a child always has many fathers.

Similarly, humankind have been in the business of seeking to accumulate information about their own activities and environment almost since the first cave painting. Early dictionaries, mere alphabetical lists of words (Did you know that the very word alphabet is alphabetical – Alpha Beta, the first two letters?) led to efforts to write meanings of the words and then derivations. Similarly, The Encyclopedia Brittanica represents a massive effort over nearly a century's time to accumulate all (or at least a whole lot) the information. Now Wikipedia and Google, almost unimagineably large and comprehensive attempt to continue the effort. But such projects would never have been as successful as they are were it not for the massive increase in speed and storage capacity of the Internet with the continued decline of the cost of computing and memory. Your smart phone is ever so much more powerful and has significantly more memory than the early manned rockets contained as the penetrated into space.

Ahhh, space! Another important strand of The Information is the work of physicists, mathematicians, and, more recently biologists in probing the edges of space and the discoveries in both theory and observation of the DNA strands that hold our entire evolutionary history within their substance, which is repeated in every cell of our bodies. All this might seem ponderous in a less graceful, clear, and, yes, witty writer. Gleick bases much of his discussion on the interaction between seminal people and the development of relevant technology. He writes about both with insight while not making the ideas so difficult to grasp that he turns off non-technical good readers. As he weaves his way through history and the science that developed, he never moves far from the search for meaning within the contentless search for relevant theory to support it. I leave it to individual readers to assess whether this book contributes to their understanding of that beyond all understanding.

James Gleick

James Gleick was born in New York and began his career in journalism, working as an editor and reporter for the New York Times. He covered science and technology there, chronicling the rise of the Internet as the Fast Forward columnist, and in 1993 founded an Internet start-up company called The Pipeline. His books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages. He has been nominated for three Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. His next book is Time Travel: A History, for which I asked the published to send me a pre-publication review copy, and was denied. I'll read it when I can afford it.

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick (Pantheon Books, 2011, 527 pages, Various Prices) explores the ideas that lead to and encompass what is now called information theory. In order to do that, Gleick has had to look to the beginning of history and before and to the ends of the Universe and beyond. Chances are there are smaller particles and further empty places, and chances are, too, that Gleick will tell us about them, and each of us will understand beyond the limits we thought possible. Who could ask for more?