Who is Claude Shannon?

4 minute read

* Note: this is a backdated post from something I took notes on in the past

I was first introduced to Claude Shannon a few months before this article was published. I don’t recall exactly where I first saw the name, but the more I read about him the more interested I became. The authors of the article wrote a longer form biography of Claude, and summarised their process in the article. Here are some of my takeaways:

He’s the most important genius you’ve never heard of, a man whose intellect was on par with Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.

From what I know now, well deserved praise.

His name may not ring a bell. Don’t worry, we didn’t know who he was either when we started.

I had no idea who we was either until a few months before this article was published.

Within engineering and mathematics circles, Shannon is a revered figure. Claude Shannon’s work in the 1930s and 1940s earned him the title of “father of the information age.” At the age of 21, he published what’s been called the most important master’s thesis of all time, explaining how binary switches could do logic. It laid the foundation for all future digital computers.

He wasn’t done. At the age of 32, he published “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” which has been called “the Magna Carta of the information age.” Shannon’s masterwork invented the bit, or the objective measurement of information, and explained how digital codes could allow us to compress and send any message with perfect accuracy.

In other words, Shannon published not just one but two foundational papers for the computing age. His first, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits showed that Boolean algebra could be used to depict computer logic circuits, implying that a more theoretical approach could be applied towards creating said circuits. His second, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, describing signal and noise in communication, has been cited more than 100,000 times. [1]

There are plenty of mathematicians and engineers who write great papers. There are fewer of them who, like Shannon, are also jugglers, unicyclists, gadgeteers, first-rate chess players, codebreakers, expert stock-pickers, and amateur poets.

He was intellectually curious, and adopted a similar mindset discussed in my other post here

But distractions are a permanent feature of life, in any era, and Shannon shows us that shutting them out isn’t just a matter of achieving random bursts of focus. It’s about consciously designing one’s life and work habits to minimize them.

Cal Newport gives his opinion on time management here. As with most life advice, it’s not necessarily appropriate for everyone, but an approach worth thinking about applyiing in your own life.

Making the most of mentorship doesn’t just require the confidence to approach someone whose guidance can make a difference in your development. It requires the humility to take that guidance to heart, even when it’s uncomfortable, challenging, or counterintuitive.

I have mentored and been mentored by dozens of people. This is hard, regardless of which side I’m on. When I’m the mentee, I can feel that my mentor doesn’t know the full context of my situation, is coming from a different background, or the advice is too drastic. When I’m the mentor, I can get frustrated I’m not being listened too. Learning to let go here has been a struggle.

Bush’s generalist gospel struck such a deep chord with him, we think, because it accorded with Shannon’s natural curiosity. He was so successful in his chosen fields not just because of his raw intellectual horsepower, but because of how deliberately he kept his interests diverse.

As mentioned above, the conflict between specialising vs generalising is difficult. Shane Parrish discusses this topic here with the help of advice from others, and comes back to the conclusion to “Specialize most of the time, but spend time understanding the broader ideas of the world.”

Reflecting on this time later, he remembered the flashes of intuition. The work wasn’t linear; ideas came when they came.

Sometimes improvement is nonlinear and comes in step functions instead. I’ve read about this before but can’t find a source for this at the moment.

Shannon benefitted from the same process. He grew smarter and more creative because he chose to surround himself, almost exclusively, with people whose smarts and creativity he admired. More than most of us, he was deliberate in his friendships, only choosing friends who drew out his best.

It’s easier to improve and learn when your social group is interested in the same, and willing to challenge and push back on your ideas. Time is an important, if not the most important resource, and you should err on the side of being more selective here.

Never confuse simplicity with simple-mindedness. It takes work to distill, to get at the essence of things, to be brief. If you stop yourself from saying something in a meeting because you’ve just thought, “Well, that’s just too simple,” you might want to think again. It may be that it’s the very thing that needs to be said.

I’m conflicted here. People seem to like complexity and overly long presentations for the sake of showing that they know what they’re talking about. I don’t know if this works, or if people see through that. [2]

We’re all conscious of our status, and for the ambitious and talented, it’s especially tough to be indifferent to it. Shannon can help us break that hold, though, because his example points us to the rich prize on the other side of indifference: fun and freedom.

An attitude to aim for, but again difficult to maintain. Status also does give you a certain freedom to do things others can’t though…

Footnotes:

  1. I barely understood both papers, so let me know if I provided a wrong description.
  2. Am also wondering if this post is overly long…