Goodman and Soni answer questions on Claude Shannon
Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni have published a biography of Claude Shannon entitled A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. They recently conducted a Reddit AMA; I have excerpted parts I found personally interesting and left their punctuation intact.
That’s actually one of the most interesting things about his life and work: There’s a lot for us to take away from it. Sometimes when you’re think of figures like Einstein or Turing, they seem like they’re on Mount Olympus–and that all of us mere mortals can study them from afar but not embrace the way they did their wok because it was so unique.
Shannon’s work had similar scientific force and impact, but he was also down-to-earth. A few of the lessons that stood out to us:
1) Learn to be by yourself and in quiet places – Shannon was an introvert, but we think contributed to his scientific imagination. He was comfortable being alone and thinking hard for long stretches of time. He also did this in places that lent themselves to that kind of thought: spartan bachelor apartments, an office whose door was usually closed. We can’t imagine him trying to bang out information theory at Starbucks.
2) Study many disciplines – Yes, Shannon was a train mathematician and engineer. But he was an equally skilled machinist and gadgeteer, one of the early pioneers of artificial intelligence, a unicyclist, a juggler, and a lot of other things. He had an omnivorous curiosity and it served him well. He was able to use all these disparate things to create the work that he did.
3) Don’t worry about external recognition so much – Shannon could barely be bothered about awards and honors. He found them amusing diversions from the work. Sometimes his wife or a mentor had to force him to actually go to the trouble of accepting awards. And even when he did, he did it with levity. (For instance, he hung all the honorary degrees he won from a rotating tie rack!). Why does this matter? Because he was running his own race. He wasn’t trying to go after a specific award or honor, so he was free to do what he did his entire life: let his curiosity wander to the places it wanted to go.
That’s just some of the lessons. We wrote more of them up here, and happy to go into any of these in further depth .
Let me add one more that I think about a lot: work with your hands. This was something Shannon did for basically his entire life. He would take things apart, put them back together, and see if he could improve on how they worked. Even at the very end stages of his life, when he was in a nursing home battling alzheimer’s, he would take apart his walker and try to imagine a better design for it.
Why does that matter? Because I think it gave him a quality that one engineer described as “not only the ability to think about things but through things.” It was a powerful part of his work–and I think it’s something we might take for granted in our own.
My guess is that the problem-solving and tactile pieces of working with your hands offer some brain-enhancing effects. But I also think there’s a broader point about appreciation and craftsmanship. There’s a great book on the topic called Shopclass as Soulcraft that’s worth checking out.
I think Shannon could anticipate future robotics because he didn’t just write papers, he built robots. He could imagine an artificially intelligent world because he built an artificially intelligent mouse. I don’t know how to reclaim that sort of thing exactly, but I know it’s a powerful part of what made him who he was.
I think one major misconception about Shannon’s life is that the second half of it didn’t amount to much, or was even some kind of waste of talent. It’s true that Shannon’s most groundbreaking work was done at an early age (so early that it makes me wince when I compare my own 20s and 30s). At 21, Shannon’s master’s thesis explained how binary switches could perform Boolean logic, and laid a key foundation for digital computers. And at 32, of course, Shannon’s “Mathematical Theory of Communication” inaugurated information theory and won him international fame.
I’ve heard Shannon compared to a professional athlete in this regard–his key accomplishments came in his relative youth, and then there was a long stretch of time in which he lacked direction by comparison.
But there are three reasons why I think this is a misconception. First, Shannon helped to set the agenda of a wide range of emerging fields even after his work on information theory. He developed (along with his colleague Robert Fano, and followed by Fano’s student David Huffman) some pioneering digital codes for compressing messages. He was a pioneer in early thought about artificial intelligence. He developed one of the first chess-playing computers (which could handle six pieces in the endgame), and wrote a paper on computer chess that was influential in the field for decades to come. Along with Ed Thorp, he built arguably the first wearable computer (used to beat the house at roulette).
Second, the methods that Shannon used to do this later work weren’t that distinct from the methods he used in his earlier work. His interests were consistently promiscuous. He loved thinking with his hands, and not just abstractly. He loved picking up on strange and playful analogies. He asked questions that others were liable to dismiss as unworthy of a serious scientist. It’s true that nothing Shannon did in his later life lived up to his “hits.” But I think it’s important to judge process, not results–and we can learn a lot from Shannon’s process even later in life. He outlined a lot of his key insights in that regard–like the virtue of simplifying problems–in a talk he gave to Bell Labs employees on creative thinking, which we dug up from the archives and discussed in our Shannon book.
Third, Shannon’s later life is worth knowing about because it was just fun. Here’s a guy who could have gone on pursuing the trappings of scientific celebrity and pontificating on whatever he felt like–but instead, given that kind of freedom, he tinkered in his two-story workshop and followed his curiosity wherever it took him. Things like Shannon’s flaming trumpet, customized unicycle fleet, or juggling robots aren’t of huge scientific interest–but they tell you a lot, in my opinion, about the kind of mind that’s capable of Shannon-sized breakthroughs.
Q: Would you describe Shannon as someone who was hard on himself with a tireless work ethic? Did he want to always be productive every moment of the day or did he let himself relax and do nothing in particular if he felt like it?
Almost always the latter.
I don’t mean to suggest that Shannon was lazy–like lots of remarkably successful people, he had his bouts of intense and concentrated activity. This was especially true in his younger years–we discuss some accounts from an acquaintance of his at the time he was working on his information theory paper, who says that Shannon would compulsively scribble ideas on napkins, or stare into space in deep concentration, or mention getting up in the middle of the night to work when struck by an idea. So when Shannon was in the midst of one of his highly creative periods, he certainly had a capacity for work to match anyone.
But what really distinguished Shannon was that he didn’t try to force it. We called our book A Mind at Play because we think that captures Shannon so well. He asked silly questions, loved tinkering in his workshop, and was often seen unicycling down the hallways of Bell Labs. He had a folder of “Letters I’ve Procrastinated on for Too Long.” And he approached his work in just the same spirit–we called it “play of the adult kind,” or play with ideas and concepts.
In other words, the main lesson we take from Shannon’s life in this regard is that the people who are most productive on the scale the matters–like, world-changingly productive–don’t worry about being productive every single hour. They can work intensely when they need to, but they also know how much is to be gained from letting the mind wander.
It’s a really interesting question, and one we had in the back of our head as we were working on this project. I’m not sure how valuable our thoughts on the subject are, but fortunately we have Claude Shannon’s thoughts!
During our research, we found the transcript of a 1952 speech he gave to his fellow Bell Labs scientists on the topic of “Creative Thinking,” and it’s the best account we came across of Shannon describing how his own mind worked. He spoked about the need for a fundamental drive “to find out what makes things tick.” That drive was indispensable: “If you don’t have that, you may have all the training and intelligence in the world, [but] you don’t have the questions and you won’t just find the answers.” Shannon was choosing his words carefully when he said that you have to “have the questions.” The greatest reward in his line of work may be the satisfaction that comes with resolving intellectual puzzles: “If I’ve been trying to prove a mathematical theorem for a week or so and I finally get the solution, I get a big bang out of it.”
So where does that drive come from? Shannon’s most interesting formulation of that quality put it like this: it was “a slight irritation when things don’t look quite right,” or a “constructive dissatisfaction.” For Shannon, an original thinker–or even a genius–is simply someone who is usefully irritated.
Shannon left his colleagues with a final, particularly challenging thought: “I think that good research workers apply these things unconsciously; that is, they do these things automatically.” In other words, Shannon didn’t expect geniuses to sit around waiting for bursts of inspiration–he was much more interested in how to cultivate the right habits, until “constructive dissatisfaction” becomes a kind of second nature.