Hi Reddit, we're Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni. We're authors and speechwriters. We've written both separately and together for a long while, and we've finished a couple books in tandem. We met at Duke, where we were both on the debate team and wrote for The Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper. Rob is currently a PhD candidate at Columbia University in political theory. Before beginning graduate study at Columbia, Rob worked as speechwriter for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Sen. Chris Dodd. Jimmy is an editor-at-large at the New York Observer, a partner at Brass Check, and has worked as a speechwriter for Governor Eric Greitens of Missouri.

After five years of research, we just wrote the first-ever biography of the mathematician and engineer Claude Shannon—A Mind At Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. We described him recently as roughly a cross between Albert Einstein and the Dos Equis guy. That's not too far off the mark: Shannon was regularly compared to Einstein in the sheer brainpower he had. But he wasn't just a good theoretical thinker. He was a builder and a tinkerer. He spent the better part of the last phase of his life in a two-story "toy room" that he outfitted so that he could build contraptions of all kinds. He built one of the world's earliest chess-playing computers, a mouse that could solve a maze (an early example of artificial intelligence), and co-made the world's first wearable device (a machine to get better odds at roulette). And he actually went to Vegas and tested it!

PROOF: https://twitter.com/jimmyasoni/status/889542114736041984

UPDATE: This has been tons of fun everyone. We joke that we've basically been waiting to share these stories with someone other than our families for five years. We're going to keep answering questions throughout the night!

Comments: 290 • Responses: 41  • Date: 

stanley604318 karma

I spent the best summer of my life helping Claude Shannon build a mechanical diorama of three juggling clowns. Have you seen this device?

I can confirm what you say about his amazing ability to tinker and invent. Plus, I have the honor of having learned to juggle and pass indian clubs from him.

hobbycollector6 karma

I didn't know he was a juggler. This has to mean he knew Ron Graham.

jimmysoni37 karma

We actually spoke to Ron and his wife about Shannon. They knew him well, and they held him in high regard.

Here's the famous vide of Shannon juggling, and you'll see the juggling clowns in action too:


coryrenton178 karma

were there any interesting discrepancies you've found in people's accounts of events and how do you resolve them?

jimmysoni303 karma

Thanks for the question coryrenton!

The biggest discrepancy involved whether or not Einstein and Shannon had tea together at Princeton, and our approach to it should give you a sense of how we attacked things like this.

As the story goes, Albert Einstein and Claude Shannon had tea together, accompanied by their wives. The anecdote has been repeated often, so it’s lodged itself into “Claude Shannon lore.”

This is a famous story—but is most likely false. Shannon and Einstein did overlap at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS), but we couldn’t find the evidence for a tea.

For one thing, by 1940, Shannon had done some interesting, important work, but nothing that would have attracted Einstein’s attention. Also, he wasn’t a physicist. So it wasn’t like Einstein would have sought Shannon out.

Shannon might wanted to get Einstein’s attention, but Shannon just also wasn’t the type to fight for that kind of audience. Shannon was enough of an introvert that he didn’t go out seeking his idols. And there’s nothing in Shannon’s behavior that would have indicated his desire to subject Einstein to a newly-minted PhD’s thoughts on this or that.

That was one problem with this account. The other is that Shannon never mentioned having tea with Einstein. He did however mention other Einstein run-in stories: He mentioned that he saw Einstein walking around in bedroom slippers, and that he once dropped by a class Shannon was teaching. But that was it.

Shannon was a modest guy, but it seems strange that he would share those about Einstein—and tell them excitedly!—and then not share a story about having tea with him. Ultimately, it was too implausible for our taste. In the interest of completeness and because the story had made the rounds, we included it in the book—but with our disclaimers and analysis.

With each moment in the book that had some controversy, we researched, interviewed, dug around, and did the best determination we could. We also had several people read and re-read the book at various stages to fix and find errors. Hopefully we got the story right!

idster23 karma

If Einstein wouldn't have seeked Shannon out, why would he have dropped by a class Shannon was seeking? It doesn't sound that implausible given what interaction was known to occur.

jimmysoni149 karma

So the answer to that--or at least the best answer we have--is that he came in, stood in back, paused, whispered something to a student and then left. Later, Claude Shannon asked what Einstein had whispered. He was looking for directions to the men's room.

nyyou107 karma

What can I take away from how Shannon thinks, works, and lives and apply today to think, work, or live better?

jimmysoni256 karma

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 think of figures like Einstein or Turing, they can 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 work 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.

Those are just some of the lessons. We wrote more of them up here, and happy to go into any of these in further depth .

jimmysoni138 karma

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.

4thofJuluau30 karma

Are there any big misconceptions about Shannon's life that this book dispels? Also, if there were a movie made about Claude Shannon which actor would you choose to play him?

RobGoodman60 karma

Thanks for the question! 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.

Re: the movie, fortunately I don't have to choose the actor to play him. Mark Levinson, the director of Particle Fever, is at work on a Shannon documentary set to come out soon, and John Hutton is playing Shannon. Here's the IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5015534/. I know I'm camping out for tickets.

SandF8 karma

I am about a third of the way through reading Garry Kasparov's "Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins", and I am finding that (not surprisingly) Claude Shannon figures prominently across multiple domains (computer chess, AI, information theory).

Thanks for doing this IamA and doing a bio of Shannon, I will be sure to pick up a copy of your book!

jimmysoni3 karma

Thank you!

PartizanParticleCook12 karma

Just hopping in here to say that this is one of the better AMAs I've read, thanks for answering and not only plugging your book

jimmysoni17 karma

Thank you! That means a lot to us. I'd offer only two thoughts in response: When Rob and I decided to do the AMA, it was because we knew that this was the kind of community that Shannon would love. So we wanted to set aside some real time to do it and give real answers to people's questions.

The other thing is...boy does it feel good to share some of these pent-up stories! We'e been at this for so long, and there's so many finish lines when you're doing a book. It is honestly a great feeling to be able to share all of this Shannon trivia.

stanley6041 karma


jimmysoni9 karma

Wow! Yes, we are familiar, but definitely not in the way that you are. The best we could do is to dig up the photographs and find a long-lost interview with a juggling magazine in which Shannon talks about these juggling clowns, with praise: “The greatest numbers jugglers of all time cannot sustain their record patterns for more than a few minutes, but my little clowns juggle all night and never drop a prop!”

So fascinating that you got to build them, and of course, we have a million questions. But maybe just letting you respond to this and talk about what it was like to be at his elbow building with him. How did you get introduced to him? What prompted him to build that diorama? Tell us everything!

stanley60427 karma

I spent the best summer of my life helping Claude Shannon build a mechanical diorama of three juggling clowns. Are you familiar with this device?

EDIT: Aargh, I deleted the post you responded to before I saw your response. Sorry! Here's what you responded:

Wow! Yes, we are familiar, but definitely not in the way that you are. The best we could do is to dig up the photographs and find a long-lost interview with a juggling magazine in which Shannon talks about these juggling clowns, with praise: “The greatest numbers jugglers of all time cannot sustain their record patterns for more than a few minutes, but my little clowns juggle all night and never drop a prop!”

So fascinating that you got to build them, and of course, we have a million questions. But maybe just letting you respond to this and talk about what it was like to be at his elbow building with him. How did you get introduced to him? What prompted him to build that diorama? Tell us everything!

I went to school with Claude's daughter, and had some skills tinkering with electronics and computers. He was looking for a helper and she recommended me. At first, he wanted to build an actual robot (much like he did later on with his W.C. Fields robot). But then he settled on the idea of a diorama showing the (at that time) record-holding juggling performances.

I would just do whatever odd job needed doing; he was obviously the brains of the operation. :-) He taught me to mill poker chips on a Bridgeport, and to use a lathe to accurately drill holes in the middle of said chips. (The chips were used for the pin-juggling clown to get the proper rotation of the pins).

He was an amazing man, and I loved talking and working with him.

jimmysoni17 karma

What a story--and what an opportunity. What do you think your most vivid memory of him is?

stanley60422 karma

Nothing tops the time I passed Indian (juggling) clubs with him. He was so happy to see my increasing skill (I would practice the clubs when I got home from "work"). He had a child-like joy when he juggled. He tried to get me going on a unicycle, too, but that didn't take. :-)

As I mentioned elsewhere, the image I see in my head is Dr. Shannon wearing a walkman and headphones, listening to Pete Fountain, sipping an Old Fashioned and walking around the house, trying to work out some problem in the gadget.

jimmysoni12 karma

Wish we had spoken to you before we went to press!!

stanley60410 karma

I would have enjoyed that. I have such nice memories of that summer. I liked your piece on Betty Shannon, by the way. She was such an intelligent, radiant and friendly presence.

jimmysoni13 karma

I appreciate that. Sadly she passed away just before the publication of the book. We heard from her children that she was "tickled" at the idea of a biography. We were fortunate that we got to speak to her before she passed away. They were quite the match, and down to his last days, she was a devoted partner.

But we're telling you things you already know. Hopefully we get to meet you and swap stories sometime--and by swap stories, I mean you talk and we listen.

vengefultacos26 karma

Claude has been a personal hero of mine for ages.

How would you compare him to Turing?

jimmysoni78 karma

So there's a lot alike between the two of them. They are both quiet. They are both introverted, preferring their own company to that of others. They both advanced computing very far. They both participated in the worlds of encryption, cryptography, and code-breaking during WWII. They are both brilliant--and their smarts were evident to those around them, people who were in a position to pass those kinds of judgments.

The most obvious difference between the two of them: Shannon didn't have the same tragic story as Turing. Outside of a possibly mild depressive episode in his 20s, Shannon's life was largely lived on an even keel. Shannon wasn't the most social guy in the world, but we imagine that Turing's social awkwardness was just a notch or two higher.

The biography that's the must-read on Turing is called "The Enigma." And I think that title is pretty revealing: Turing was enigmatic and tough to get at. That's common in a lot of genius-level minds, but as we said earlier, it's actually part of what makes Shannon so refreshing. He wasn't an open book, per say, and as biographers, we knew he had more IQ points than us, but he definitely wasn't inaccessible in the same way that Turing was.

Shannon's work had a hard-headedness and practicality; we could watch YouTube vides of Theseus the mouse or the Ultimate Machine. We could make sense of his chess playing machine. I admire Alan Hodges for taking on Turing as a subject. I don't think we would've had the courage to do it.

One final thought: Probably my favorite chapter to write in the book was the one that focuses on the meeting between Turing and Shannon. These two guys--so brilliant, and so fond of being alone--actually ended up becoming friends. They got together for daily tea at Bell Labs during war-time, when Turing was on a tour of the United States, checking to make sure that American encryption machines passed muster with the British government.

Turing visited Shannon at his home--which probably put him in a company of less than five people to do so. They talked about building computer brains. They talked about artificial intelligence. They talked about everything except...codebreaking. They had to be cagey about that because the work was as secretive as any being done at the time. But in a way, it freed them up to talk about so many other interesting things.

Shannon ended up visiting Turing later in the UK after the war. They played around with a computer he had in his basement and ended up picking up right where they left off. The story is tragic because Turing died shortly thereafter, but there's also something fitting in the fact that these two war-time code-breakers reunited and nerded out.

It's amazing to imagine those teas and that meeting now, knowing what an impact they both had. We wouldn't have had the chops to join them, but it would have been interesting to eavesdrop into what they saying over their Earl Greys.

barden106925 karma

What is the most surprising or unexpected thing you found out about Shannon? Thanks for doing this AMA!

jimmysoni68 karma

Tons! Let me list a few of the ones that jump to mind:

  • He once had a correspondence with L. Ron Hubbard, as Rob mentioned in a different answer (disclaimer: he was not a Scientologist. He enjoyed Hubbard's science fiction writing).

  • He once met Steve Jobs. Shannon didn't know who he was, and it was actually Steve Jobs who elbowed his way into the audience with Shannon, not the other way around.

  • He played the jazz clarinet. As if being brilliant and inventing things isn't enough.

  • He once wrote a paper that devised a system of pulleys and mirrors that would allow a driver from the US to feel like he was in a car in the UK and still driving on the right side of the road. (This is how he spent a fellowship at Oxford. And it's a 2,000 word paper, so it's not something he just dashed off.)

  • He didn't get perfect grades in high school. In fact, he had his share of Bs.

  • He became a juggler, but was frustrated by the fact that he could never get to five balls.

  • He once built a false wall in his house that would rotate at the push of a button.

  • A tree had grown oversized on the Shannon property. Rather than just have it cut down, Shannon had the idea to have it carved like a flagpole and have a skull carved at the top. He then stuck a Jolly Roger skull-and-crossbones flag on it.

zipzap2124 karma

A tree had grown oversized on the Shannon property. Rather than just have it cut down, Shannon had the idea to have it carved like a flagpole and have a skull carved at the top. He then stuck a Jolly Roger skull-and-crossbones flag on it.

Was he into pirates?

jimmysoni46 karma

That was the only pirate reference we could find, but I'd add one observation. When I think of that quote "It's better to be a pirate than join the Navy," I think of Claude Shannon. He had this counter-culture streak about him, and he was a non-conformist in the best sense. Someone told us in an interview that Claude Shannon would have made the world's greatest con man if he had gone in that direction. When we shared that quote with his daughter, she said, "He would've taken that as a huge compliment."

Meta4X24 karma

A good portion of Shannon's work ended up classified for a number of years. As a scientist, how did he view this treatment of his work?

jimmysoni49 karma

That's a fantastic question. The honest answer is: He wasn't a fan of the government bureaucracies and the times he had to engage with them. The secrecy, the classified nature of the work, the bureaucracy--it was all a little stifling and strange to him.

He got a government contract to come to Bell Labs and do work on "fire control"--essentially the mathematics of how to shoot things down from the sky. It wasn't his favorite work assignment ever, but it spared him from the draft. He made no bones about it: He did not want to deploy. He was frail and would have hated the close quarters of military life. Plus he thought his brain would be more useful than his body to the war effort.

It wasn't entirely to his liking, but that said, he does do what colleagues later report as "stunning work." It also gets him in front of some of the leading scientists of the time. Later, because of that period, he's invited into the earliest discussions around the creation of the NSA, with a specific ask that he help out on committees related to cryptography.

The CIA actually writes to Bell Labs to ask for Shannon by name. To anyone else, this would be a huge honor. Shannon thought of it, as best as we can tell, as a bit of an annoying distraction from his work. He went to these meetings in paneled boardrooms at the Pentagon, but when we picture these scenes, we sort of think of him as a second semester senior in high school. He's there...but he's not really there.

That's all the more entertaining when you think about the fact that some of the leading brains in the world were invited to that room. But they had to convince Shannon to do it!

In any case, very few people know about that era of Shannon's life, and it was exciting to dive into it. It felt, for a brief instant, like we were in the middle of a good spy movie...but then it turns out that the main character can't be bothered with spycraft. Oh well.

BKSenior15 karma

So much hype in the last week, I cant wait to read the book! Question though. Usually these deep researched biographies are written solo. How does one co-write a book like this? Dare I assume it just devolves into chaos, arguing and ultimately a great finished book and a scorched earth friendship?

jimmysoni28 karma

So it's actually been one of the more enjoyable aspects of our professional writing lives.

Our process was roughly this: We divided up the chapters in the book based on where our natural interests and strengths were. We'd each focus on that chapter and write it fully before getting it to the other person. Then the other person would mark it up, edit, add comments, etc, and get it back. We'd keep ping-ponging chapters until they sounded like they came from one human.

We interviewed almost everyone together. That was important in case one of us missed something that the other picked up on, but it was also just a lot more fun. It made it more of a conversation and less of a strict interview.

A "book marriage" like our's probably has the same elements of any marriage: You're going to have moments of frustration and difficulty, punctuated by moments of joy and hilarity. We had more of the latter than the former for sure, and honestly, a big part of why we can do this together is we were friends before we became co-authors. We can sit in a room together for long stretches of time and just grind away at this, but we still manage to watch hilarious YouTube videos or laugh about some random tweet.

We never came anywhere close to a "book divorce," though I really liked having bigger quotes from our interview subjects and Rob would always go in and trim them down. I nearly asked him to sleep on the book couch that night.

In general, we'd really recommend co-writing books. You always have someone to trade ideas off, and you have someone who can handle their share of the work. You're also accountable to someone other than yourself. You end up being able to enjoy the writing process more and, when the inevitable wins and losses happen, you're able to share them with someone.

But find someone who doesn't hate block quotes so much. That makes it smoother sailing.

Exomianne14 karma

That's so exciting! I am a big fan of Shannon's work, and I'm so glad to hear there's finally a full biography.

Richard Hamming shared an office with Shannon for a while and looked up to him quite a bit. If you happen to know, what did Shannon think of Hamming (and their boss)?

RumbuncTheRadiant22 karma

I also would love to hear a response to this question.

Hamming is the author of what I regard as the most readable technical book of all time "Coding and Information Theory", in which he explains a lot of Shannon's work.

A deeply mathematical and technical book, but wonderfully clear and concise and understandable.

That was the book that convinced me that my problems with university were not that I am stupid, but that most academics were just really really Bad at explaining things.

Once I had that epiphany, things went a lot better for me, as I started to look the simplicity inside the layers of complexity they were teaching me.

I'm rather grateful to Hamming.

I would also love to know to what extent they worked together on that book.

jimmysoni12 karma

So this was one of the more surprising parts of the research: we actually didn't uncover too many Hamming-and-Shannon stories. And, honestly, it might be that we just didn't ask the question clearly enough of people who knew both of them, because in most cases, the people we were talking to knew Shannon somehow and we wanted to know about their interactions with him.

We did speak to someone (Brockway MacMillan) who had the office next door, but he didn't mention Hamming either.

Obviously the Shannon story can't be told without discussing the famous Hamming talk "You and your research." I'd recommend everyone interested in Shannon read it (http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html).

It's thought-provoking, though I will say there are parts we agree with and parts we don't. We actually quote a full passage from the speech in the conclusion of the book:

One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. If you think you can't, almost surely you are not going to. Courage is one of the things that Shannon had supremely. You have only to think of his major theorem. He wants to create a method of coding, but he doesn't know what to do so he makes a random code. Then he is stuck. And then he asks the impossible question, ``What would the average random code do?'' He then proves that the average code is arbitrarily good, and that therefore there must be at least one good code. 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 will go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and continue to think.

We agree with that, and we think Hamming actually makes an interesting and often overlooked point about Shannon's work. Because he was so playful, it's easy to miss how much courage it took to do what he did.

Hamming goes on to talk about how he predicted that Shannon leaving Bell Labs would be the end of his scientific career. It's an often discussed passage:

Shannon, I believe, ruined himself. In fact when he left Bell Labs, I said, "That's the end of Shannon's scientific career.'" I received a lot of flak from my friends who said that Shannon was just as smart as ever. I said, "Yes, he'll be just as smart, but that's the end of his scientific career,'' and I truly believe it was.

We take issue with this. It's popular to point out that his work after 1948 didn't rise to the same level as information theory. But that's an almost comically high bar to meet! The truth is that Shannon did a lot of writing and publishing in the 1950s and 1960s, including the very work that would show how his 1948 paper could be applied. He also helped to set the agendas in several related fields, such as artificial intelligence, computer chess and robotics.

This is a debate that could go on forever, I suspect. Did Shannon hang it up after 1948? Or did he consciously choose to move onto other pastures? We'd vote the latter; Hamming might say the former.

The fact that we can have such a discussion--Did Shannon's later work come close to a transformative paper that defined a field?--suggests that its a good-problem-to-have kind of discussion. Shannon, I imagine, would've laughed at anyone having such a discussion and gone back to doing whatever problem he wanted to work on.

misplaced_my_pants9 karma

I think I read y'all started researching the book in 2012, which was shortly after James Gleick wrote his excellent book, The Information, which covered Shannon's work a bit (and was my personal introduction to Shannon).

Am I correct in guessing that his book gave you the idea to write a dedicated biography of the man? If not, what was the story of how you got the inspiration to do so?

jimmysoni16 karma

James Gleick's book is a great read, but in this case, it was actually Jon Gertner's THE IDEA FACTORY that gave us the notion to write a biography of Shannon. Gertner's book is a narrative history of Bell Labs, and one of the central figures in it is Claude Shannon. He was so interesting in the pages of Gertner's book that we got to wondering, "Why hasn't anyone done the end-to-end life of Claude Shannon?"

Once we asked that question of our agent, she set us up for lunch with the legendary Alice Mayhew--the Simon & Schuster editor behind A BEAUTIFUL MIND and STEVE JOBS and EINSTEIN, among other books. She got the idea for the book right away: That there was something about this mind that needed to be captured and preserved.

(As an aside, people should definitely check out Gertner's book. Mark Zuckerberg recommended it last year, and it's a really insightful look into what makes organizations tick--and what makes tech companies innovative.)

misplaced_my_pants8 karma

Oh yes Gertner's book is also excellent. That was the second book I read that covered Shannon.

Can't wait to read yours!

jimmysoni5 karma

Yes, we found Gertner's book thoroughly enjoyable. We should also add, for the sake of credit and thanks, that Jon met with us early in the process of doing this project, encouraged us to finish us, gave us a never-before-published interview with Thornton Fry, and kept in regular contact. He's the very best thing you can ask for as author: someone who has walked the same path before you.

toastwizards9 karma

Did Shannon ever directly make comments on the potential of Artificial Intelligence? Did he give any promising statements or warnings based on its development? Or was the concept of AI, being rather young at the time, too undeveloped for such a futuristic stance on it?

jimmysoni17 karma

He was more than a little optimistic about artificial intelligence--and about the capacity for machines and robots to do all kinds of things better than human beings. Rather than pontificate, here's Shannon in his own words:

"I believe that today, that we are going to invent something, it’s not going to be the biological process of evolution anymore, it’s going to be the inventive process whereby we invent machines which are smarter than we are and so we’re no longer useful, not only smarter but they last longer and have replaceable parts and they’re so much better. There are so many of these things about the human system, it’s just terrible. The only thing surgeons can do to help you basically is to cut something out of you. They don’t cut it out and put something better in, or a new part in."

In this long-forgotten Vogue profile on him (yeah, the guy was in Vogue!), the piece opens with this sentence: "Dr. Claude E. Shannon...who creates, plays with, stays a think ahead of thinking machines, looks forward to man and machine talking back and forth. For him, why not?"

He even imagined a time when we'd build robots to explore the surface of the moon--and then he went an empathetic step further and thought about what might happen when a robot like that accidentally fell into a lunar hole: "You have to think of problems like this when machines are running around loose in the real world. A machine on the moon must protect itself—not fall down a hole, without your having to tell it not to. It’s the same problem we’re going to have some day with furniture when there are robot housekeepers running around the house, picking up things."

When he was asked about what his goals were, and why he was spending all this time building artificially intelligent mice and chess playing computers, he said he had three goals, "First, how can we give computers a better sensory knowledge of the real world? Second, how can they better tell us what they know, besides printing out the information? And third, how can we get them to react upon the real world?”

And to the obvious question--Did he worry about the singularity?--it seems that didn't bother him in the slightest. Again, here he is in his own words: “My fondest dream is to someday build a machine that really thinks, learns, communicates with humans and manipulates its environment in a fairly sophisticated way...In the long run [the machines] will be a boon to humanity, and the point is to make them so as rapidly as possible...There is much greater empathy between man and machines [today]...we’d like to close it up so that we are actually talking back and forth.”

toastwizards7 karma

That's enticing! His comments make me wonder if he would have had further insight on growing organs and using those for replacements rather than simply ripping them out!

I've always had this optimistic stance on AI, considering that we have no truth, only conjecture, when it comes to the ideas surrounding it. I've thought that preparing for, or disassociating from, the Singularity is comparable to building a bomb shelter. You don't know if a bomb will hit, but you'll sure as hell be prepared to say, "I told you so!" Just in case anything happens. Which would probably seem silly to Shannon.

If you don't mind answering more questions, I'd love for some further insight on Shannon's life.

Is there much on his childhood that could show a direct affect on his development as a genius pioneer of the tech industry?

He liked Sci-Fi books, did he ever make comments concerning Asimov?

jimmysoni8 karma

Happy to keep answering! This has been five years in the making for us, and we've bored our families to death with these stories so it's fun to share the with an audience that's hungry for more!

A few things stand out from his childhood:

1) He tinkered. He was always building, playing with erector sets, making things, breaking things. He built a makeshift elevator in a barn with a friend of his; they also strung up a barbed-wire telegraph. Obviously that building was central to his later work on machines of all kinds and varieties, and he started young for sure.

2) He got interested in math early. His sister was actually a very gifted mathematician and he admits at one point that sibling rivalry was part of what led him into math--and then he proved to be great at it so he stuck around. Wonder what would have happened if his sister had been excellent at English? Would Claude have become a incredible novelist instead?

3) He lives in the shadow of an inventor grandfather. David Shannon Jr. was Claude's grandfather. He was also the owner of a patent on an improvement to the washing machines of that era. He died before Claude was born, but the fact of that he did the work he did seems to have left an imprint on the young Claude Shannon.

vacuous_comment7 karma

Do you have any new info on Shannon's casino exploits? I heard about some violence applied to people he knew by casinos from people who knew that cohort.

jimmysoni14 karma

We didn't hear any stories about the violence, though it was the possibility of it that ultimately led Ed Thorp and Shannon to abandon the use of the wearable device they had built to give them an edge at the roulette tables.

A couple things that emerged from it that might not have been written about before (though again, they may have and we may have just missed it!):

  • Shannon and Thorp actually bought a regulation roulette table and put it at Shannon's house to figure out the math behind it. That was then used to rig up the computer.

  • The other co-conspirators were their wives. And this is actually a more interesting and important point about Shannon's life: put simply, his wife Betty was really into everything he was into. We just wrote about this on Scientific American, because we thought it was such an interesting aspect of Shannon's life. Betty went to the casinos with Thorp and Shannon, and she was one of the look-outs as they used this wearable device. Their daughter Peggy said about her parents, "They were gamblers." Definitely true, and the role of Shannon's wife Betty in his creative work is a part Shannon's story that we think is worth appreciating.

noveltyimitator7 karma

I read his seminal paper on information theory and it is probably the best academic paper ever written, in terms of clarity, scope and depth. Do you think he is underrated as a thinker, and what can be done to propagate information to the public about Shannon?

jimmysoni10 karma

One of the things that gave us some relief was just how clear Shannon's paper was—and that reflected, we think, the clarity of thought that went into them. As we said before, we're not trained in engineering or mathematics, but we were able to get through that paper and understand it—which says way more about Shannon than it does about us.

Just a bit of history too: His colleagues agreed with you. When it came, John Pierce said, "It came like a bomb." Because Shannon had poured so much into it (over 10 years of work) and because he had told no one, people were just awe-struck by it.

We wrote the biography because we do think he's underrated as a thinker (in part because he preferred to remain that way rather than become a scientific celebrity). There's also a film on the way that should help more people know about him. In a funny way though, I think the best thing people could do to propagate information about him is to live by the values he embodied: curiosity, playfulness, a sincere commitment to research, a humorous streak. If more people become inspired by Shannon and his work, I imagine that the information about him will spread on its own (no pun intended).

Truthlaidbear6 karma

What's next in terms of telling this story? Have you sold the movie rights or anything like that? What about for each of you? Next book or job?

jimmysoni11 karma

We set out to make his story as well-known as we could. So we're going to spend a good chunk of time telling people about him--through written pieces, podcasts, radio, talks, etc. His fingerprints are all over the modern world, and we wish more people knew that!

We haven't sold the movie rights yet (Hollywood, are you listening?), but the good news is that there is a Claude Shannon documentary in the works. It's being created and directed by filmmaker Mark Levinson. He was the brilliant mind behind the movie Particle Fever, and his Claude Shannon doc is going to be fantastic. Mark has the virtue of being both a film-maker and trained scientist--so he's able to get a rich sense of Shannon's story from both of those perspectives. We've been lucky to see some early trailers and clips from it, and people who enjoy those kinds of documentaries are going to really enjoy this one.

In terms of what's next for us, we've both been kicking around a few good ideas for books. But I think what both of us need more than anything is a break. Writing a book like this, and then making sure people hear about it, is utterly exhausting. Our joke is that it took two minds to make sense of Claude Shannon's single mind. Both of us became fathers during the course of writing the book; our daughters were actually born just a week apart! So we're looking forward to some time with them, which will hopefully reveal what the next book should be. Or it'll turn all this Claude Shannon thinking into an illustrated children's book. Can't start too soon!

OrsinoBorealis7 karma

Just received a signed copy of your book from Mark after filming wrapped. It is so wonderful to see you all recommending each other's work to bring Shannon's life and accomplishments to a wider audience, so thank you. Looking forward to both reading and watching more!

jimmysoni4 karma

Good luck finishing up the filming! We keep seeing photos on Instagram and we're excited to see the finished product! Mark (and Sergio) have been wonderfully generous collaborators and friends. We actually all did a tandem visit to Bell Labs New Jersey facility together.

forava75 karma

how was that experience at vegas testing it out? There must be a fun story somewhere in there

jimmysoni8 karma

Ed Thorp told us a story about how they almost got caught. He was sitting there and all of a sudden the lady next to him looks at him in horror. As put put it, “I left the table quickly and discovered the speaker peering from my ear canal like an alien insect.”

I think the whole idea of these two guys from MIT building this contraption and taking their families to Vegas to test it out is just hilarious. This was at a time when the casinos and the mob were enmeshed, so they were running some risk doing this. And they really had no formal reason to be doing it. It was all motivated by Ed Thorp visiting Claude Shannon once to talk about a paper. Once that was done, Claude Shannon asked him if he was working on anything else. Then Thorp talked about this idea he'd been thinking about...and that was that. They spent the next eight months in Claude's two-story gadget room trying to build it.

LazarusLong19814 karma

What was his favorite sandwich?

jimmysoni7 karma

As exhaustive as our research was, we don't know the answer to that one in particular. Here's what I can tell you: He was a very boring eater. It was part of what made him averse to foreign travel; he liked having his home-made "meat-and-potatoes." So it turns out that one of the 20th century's most creative minds has markedly less creative culinary taste. Go figure.

TheNarwhaaaaal4 karma

Hey Rob and Jimmy, I'm a PhD Candidate in Electrical Engineering with a focus on signal processing. My work is very related to that of Claude Shannon, and I know a bunch of other PhD candidates and PhD holders who are experts in everything information theory. It seems weird (but welcome) that you two, who appear not to have a formal education in information theory, would be the ones writing about our lord and savior Claude Shannon. Could you speak a few words to that? If you could go back and do your life over again, do you think you'd find yourselves sitting here right here next to me studying the signal processing black magics?

jimmysoni3 karma

Believe me, it was weird for us as well--and we've thankfully had lots of help from people who are experts in the field, including many who helped to define its boundaries alongside Shannon. It was a real thrill to speak to Bob Fano, Len Kleinrock, Irwin Jacobs, Tom Kailath, Dave Forney, and Bob Gallager, among many others. Many of them helped read through the draft, with a particular eye for the substance of information theory. As Rob said earlier, any mistakes are our's, but we did try very hard to make sense of this field at the level that we thought necessary to tell the story.

That last point is important. Rob and I didn't have experience with signals processing or Huffman codes--but we did know how to do research into someone's life, stitch their story together, and make it accessible for a broad audience. It's a different set of skills, and trust me, there were months where we both wondered, "Wouldn't this project be so much better in the hands of someone who had studied this stuff?"

That said, I do think we brought things to it that an expert might not have. And as we've written about in the book, there was virtue to not knowing anything: It meant we had to work hard to understand things and then explain them on the page the same way we had to learn them: from scratch. Hopefully we succeeded, and judging from what comments we've gotten from people in the field, we managed to avoid any glaring errors. I hope that answers the question!

And to your last question: Rob and I have been humanities types since we were little. I discovered long ago that I enjoyed playing with words more than playing with numbers. My dad was an engineer, so I was already predisposed to a kind of admiration for them, but after meeting so many luminaries in the field, I know I wouldn't have the chops for what you do! You talk to someone like Bob Gallager and you just walk away knowing you've interacted with a superior intellect.

snikle4 karma

I enjoyed Gleik's "The Information" recently, and enjoyed learning about Shannon. But as an aspiring amateur musician, this is the first I've heard of him being a jazz clarinetist. How much do we learn about this side of him in the book? Did he record any?

jimmysoni10 karma

Music actually makes a few appearances throughout the book. He didn't record, so far as we know. We know he was interested in music from a very young age: He played the alto horn and performed in his grade school’s musicals. His mom was a singer of local note and I imagine that's where his interest in music started.

He and his second wife Betty bonded over playing music when they were first dating (more on this here.) He loved the jazz scene in New York's West Village, and he once said his favorites were Teddy Grace, an earthy southern alto, and the cornetist and composer Bix Beiderbecke, among others. Apparently, he was very opinionated about jazz music.

He kept up the music hobby until his later years. In fact, it's one of the more charming elements of the Shannons home life: the whole family gets into music, and they keep an astonishing array of instruments in the house.

Provokateur3 karma

Thank you so much, for the book and the AMA! I'm amazed to hear that there weren't any biographies on Shannon (and I just bought a copy of yours).

I'm a PhD student in a field outside information theory, but I teach a class that is required university-wide, so I get undergrad students from all different majors. I'm amazed that I've never had a single student, even students in computer science, mathematics, or engineering, who has heard of Shannon. What do you think of Shannon's relative obscurity and would you change curricula to include him?

jimmysoni3 karma

First of all, thank you!

To the question of his obscurity: This is an interesting one. See, he had a brief brush with fame. In the mid-1950s, he's one of the rising stars of American science. He's put in magazines and on television. He's invited to speak at various venues and given honorary degrees. And then, at the apex of his celebrity, he just walks off the stage.

That's certainly part of the reason he's obscure—he made it that way on purpose. He really wanted his time to himself to pursue his curiosities. He would often as not ignore or decline invitations that came his way. He had this one funny moment when he was invited to give a talk, and his response was simple and direct (and funny!): "Since our retirement, Betty doesn’t do windows and I don’t give talks.”

Another part of his obscurity has to do with the subject matter of his work. It's hard for people to wrap their head around what he did. It's clear thinking about what Steve Jobs or Bill Gates contributed; but things like codes, compression, the bit, logic-meets-circuits--all of that can be a bit more elusive and intangible.

Would we change curricula to include him? Maybe. But Rob and I definitely aren't qualified to make those determinations. We do think there's something valuable in learning about his life and his approach to thinking--because even for people who aren't in the field of information theory, Claude Shannon's life can lead you to approach problems in a different way. Maybe that's reason enough to include him in curricula, but we'd have to leave that to wiser minds to judge.

nappy-doo3 karma

Your book just arrived from Amazon, and I'm terribly excited to read it. As someone who studied DSP/Communication/Information Theory, Shannon is a mensch. Similarly, I live a couple of blocks from his home in Arlington, and have even thought of offering to purchase it if it ever came on the market.

I have a couple of questions:

How difficult was research for this book? Was it hard to track down much of the correspondence or the people involved? It seems many are getting older (and a number still live in Arlington, if that helped).

AFAIU, Shannon became quite well-to-do near the middle and end of his life -- investing in Singleton's Teledyne and other things. Do you feel this was an intellectual pursuit for Shannon? Why?

Similarly, have you ever read "The Dream Machine" about Lickleider? I bought your book half hoping it was as good as TDM is. (If you haven't read it, READ THIS BOOK.)

I can't wait to read your book.

Thanks for the AUA.

jimmysoni4 karma

Thank you for ordering it! It's late on the east coast, but I'm going to do my best to answer your questions.

1) The research wasn't easy--especially because we came to this field as novices. A lot of Shannon's papers and correspondence are in the Library of Congress, which is where we started. But it's 11 boxes worth of material, and there is so much there. Honestly, we've thought about going back and looking it over again for any revisions and future editions of the book. He wrote a lot--and even his unpublished papers number in the thousands.

We interviewed a lot of people, and many of them were elderly. Sadly, Bob Fano, Solomon Golomb, and Betty Shannon passed after we interviewed them but before the book came out. In a very real sense, we knew we were racing against the clock to collect stories. I wish, for example, that we had set up time with Marvin Minsky before he passed. He was a giant--and a close collaborator of Shannon's.

Apart from that, we also had to get a lot of help from current thinkers in the field, and we had to speak at length with people who knew his life outside of research and work. We tracked down friends and even a running buddy.

Finally, we had to dive deep into his childhood and early life. That's not easy either: He was a boy in Gaylord, Michigan, during the early 1900s. I read issue after issue after issue of the Gaylord Herald Times, looking for any reference to the word "Shannon." But that painstaking work paid off: It's how we found what his mom's wedding dress looked like at his parents' wedding; it's how we knew what it felt like to grow up in that town at that time. It's how learned when his dad died, and the fact that Shannon came back for the funeral and left hastily thereafter (which gave us more evidence that the relationship between him and his mom had become strained). Those details may not be the most consequential things in the world in isolation, but taken together, they're how you turn random facts about someone into a textured story.

So all of that to say, it was a long and laborious process, but honestly, its what you sign up for. And I don't regret any of it. Even as I'm typing this now, I'm remembering all of those moments, as hard as they were, with a smile.

2) Making money was a game for Shannon. He wasn't particularly interested in a lavish life, but he loved understand the market and making sense of it. He did get on the ground floor of a number of early tech companies and once in, the best thing he did was just hold on. He and his wife played the market; it was a shared pursuit, and they made a fair bit of money doing it.

3) But again, what's striking about Shannon (and we elaborate on this book in the book and in this piece is that money was just a portal to an interesting problem. He wasn't particularly acquisitive, nor did he have a taste for the finer things. He liked puzzles--and the stock market was the ultimate puzzle.

I haven't read The Dream Machine, but you've convinced me to order it!

Quickitt2 karma

Not sure if Im too late here. I study applied math and EE and have often used Shannon's theorems!

My question is: what do you think was the main difference between Shannon and for example Von Neumann (who also lived there at that time). What set him apart?

jimmysoni4 karma

So this is said with the disclaimer that we know a lot more about Claude Shannon than we do about Von Neumann. There's a lot of differences: in what they worked on, where they did their work, how they thought, etc. But you asked for the main difference, and I think it's probably personality.

Von Neumann was social and garrulous; the parties he hosted at Princeton were, by all accounts, legendary. He himself was always shuttling between DC and New York, giving talks and engaging in government work. He was much more "out there" than Shannon, and in his lifetime, he's involved in everything from the atomic bomb to high-level theoretical math to early computing.

Shannon, as we've discussed, was an introvert and a homebody. The idea of going to Washington and talking to politicians about this or that scientific matter would've bored him.

Burnout072 karma

What got you interested in Claude Shannon?

jimmysoni2 karma

We went into this a bit earlier too, but it was reading Jon Gertner's THE IDEA FACTORY. Even at Bell Labs, a place that was packed with big brains, he was regarded as unusually intelligent. We went looking for a biography and couldn't find one. It was a scavenger hunt of a book: There were bits of Shannon here and there, and it was actually enjoyable to go out and take all these disparate threads and weave them into a narrative.

AssistedSuicideSquad1 karma

Woah! I just heard your interview on Prairie Public earlier as I was driving to work. Wrote a note on my phone to buy the book.

Are you.guys gonna go on a book tour? Zandbroz in Fargo is a pretty sweet place.

jimmysoni3 karma

We are doing a miniature tour with some stops in the Bay Area, Michigan, Durham, NC, and one or two other places. We'll go where we are invited to talk all things Shannon, and if Fargo wants us, then Fargo here we come!

sonkman1 karma

How do you work together in writing a book? Do you take turns writing while discussing with the other? Do you split up chapters? And how do you solve a conflict in opinion about the text the other wrote, or about an idea?

jimmysoni2 karma

So we answered this question a little earlier, and I'm happy to do it in more depth but for now, here's the quoted answer and the link to it:

Our process was roughly this: We divided up the chapters in the book based on where our natural interests and strengths were. We'd each focus on that chapter and write it fully before getting it to the other person. Then the other person would mark it up, edit, add comments, etc, and get it back. We'd keep ping-ponging chapters until they sounded like they came from one human. We interviewed almost everyone together. That was important in case one of us missed something that the other picked up on, but it was also just a lot more fun. It made it more of a conversation and less of a strict interview. A "book marriage" like our's probably has the same elements of any marriage: You're going to have moments of frustration and difficulty, punctuated by moments of joy and hilarity. We had more of the latter than the former for sure, and honestly, a big part of why we can do this together is we were friends before we became co-authors. We can sit in a room together for long stretches of time and just grind away at this, but we still manage to watch hilarious YouTube videos or laugh about some random tweet. We never came anywhere close to a "book divorce," though I really liked having bigger quotes from our interview subjects and Rob would always go in and trim them down. I nearly asked him to sleep on the book couch that night. In general, we'd really recommend co-writing books. You always have someone to trade ideas off, and you have someone who can handle their share of the work. You're also accountable to someone other than yourself. You end up being able to enjoy the writing process more and, when the inevitable wins and losses happen, you're able to share them with someone. But find someone who doesn't hate block quotes so much. That makes it smoother sailing.

cyroxos1 karma

Hi, I'm also a Shannon, and throughout my entire life I have had a special relationship with the idea of information and complexity. I first learned about Claude when I was 20 or so, at that point I had already started writing a novel about a self simulating universe. I often times think that I can't live a normal life because I don't honestly understand what "to be alive" is and see purely a field of information interacting with itself. Did Claude ever have a low point where his ideas and projects frusterated him?

jimmysoni1 karma

I hadn't seen any question like this asked, so I'll take a brief stab at it: Yes, he did. There was a period in his twenties when his first marriage was collapsing, the draft was just getting going, and his professional future was up in the air. It was when he was at Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Studies, and it's a tough time. The war put a lot of pressure on young men of that era, especially men like Claude who felt they weren't a fit for military service. Through the help of mentors, he secures a contract doing work for the government through Bell Laboratories. He studies and researches "fire control"--essentially the science of how to shoot down moving objects from the air. It brings him, ultimately, to New York and Bell Labs, where his life starts to right-size.

buffalo_sauce1 karma

Whats it like to write books as a team? How do you split the actual writing and keep styles consistent?

jimmysoni1 karma

Thanks for the question! We answered a piece of this earlier, but if you want to know more, just ask: https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/6pa11p/we_spent_5_years_studying_claude_shannonthe/dknvmck/

unl1 karma

I see there is an audio CD version available. Will this be released on Audible?

jimmysoni1 karma

Yes there's actually both an audible version and an audio CD.

ZackMorris781 karma

I will be picking up your book! I read a book called Fortune's Formula a few years back and it had a bunch of stuff about Claude Shannon in it, matter of fact it was one of the most interesting parts of the book. So yours seems like such a great read since I enjoyed that so much.

What do you think Shannon and a guy like Elon Musk would come up with today?

jimmysoni2 karma

Thanks! That's an interesting question, and the best I can offer is an educated guess. I think Claude Shannon would have wanted to be at the intersection of artificial intelligence and machines, the mix of engineering and advanced mathematics that was always his lifelong passion. So if I had to hazard a guess--and this is definitely nothing more than a guess!--I'd say that he'd be intrigued by the possibilities in self-driving cars, things like the Hyperloop, and even some of the advances in drone technology. I think he'd be fascinated by cryptocurrency; he did write a seminal paper in the adjacent field of cryptography, so he'd have a tough time not getting interested, I think.

reptiliansentinel1 karma

I read the book The Idea Factory recently. How would you critique that book's treatment of Shannon? Do you think it provides an accurate picture of him?

jimmysoni1 karma

I think it largely does provide an accurate picture of him—but if anything, the fact that it doesn't go far enough is what led Rob and I to write this book. Don't get me wrong, Jon's book is great. But he had the mammoth task of telling several life stories at the same time without losing the reader. That meant, inevitably, some stuff had to end up on the cutting room floor. So all of these interesting nuggets about Shannon could never have made it into the THE IDEA FACTORY, or else that book would be 1,000 page long. But his challenge was our gain, and we're lucky to have had him as an ally in finishing this book.