Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Review: The Information

The Information
From The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, by James Gleick:
Open quote 

Where, then, is any particular gene -- say, the gene for long legs in humans? This is a little like asking where is Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E minor. Is it in the original handwritten score? The printed sheet music? Any one performance -- or perhaps the sum of all performances, historical and potential, real and imagined?"

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B+

The best seller list includes histories (stories about events) and biographies (stories about people), but it seldom contains books about subjects as abstract as "information" (stories about ideas). James Gleick's broad survey of the concept is the exception. It reminds me of John D. Barrow's The Book of Nothing. That covered how humans have considered the concept of "nothing" from the ancients to quantum physics. Gleick does something similar to the concept of "information."

Gleick ranges from analyzing jungle drums, to Morse code, to cryptography to DNA to quantum computing. He moves fast, so if he loses you on any particular topic, there's another one coming along soon. The topics build towards a significant insight into the nature of information. Although there are many players to credit for this insight (Claude Shannon's development of information theory is one notable pioneer), I'll single out Richard Dawkins, who is probably best known today for his arguments against religion (e.g., The God Delusion), but first gained fame for his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

First, Dawkins turned evolutionary theory on its head by putting the gene at the center, not the individual. Genes aren't the way adults of a species propagate themselves. Instead, adults are the way genes propagate themselves.

Second, the molecular embodiment of a gene is just a transitory representation of what's really at work. Just like a Beethoven sonata is not the sheet music or the mp3 file, a strand of DNA is not a gene. It's the information contained in that molecular structure that is the gene. That information can be spread far and wide in time and space.

Third, other ideas spread in a manner analogous to genes. Dawkins called these memes. Belief in God is a particularly widespread meme, being almost universal in human culture across the globe and across eras.

This last insight, that ideas, information itself, may have some kind of existence independent of the medium used to represent or communicate them may turn out to be one of the most significant scientific insights of the twentieth century. (Gleick doesn't make the argument explicitly, but it also might provide an answer to a traditional argument against atheism - if there's no God, what happens to morality? In this new way of looking at information, morality is neither God-given nor is it a human invention either. Morality is a particularly well adapted meme that humans are as powerless to control as they are to control the genes they carry.)

You can read The Information as a series of interesting chapters on various topics like the invention of the telegraph or you can read it as the first popular history of a concept that promises to reinvent almost everything we think and do.


"Like the looms, forges, naileries, and glassworks he studied in his travels across northern England, Babbage’s machine was designed to manufacture vast quantities of a certain commodity. The commodity was numbers."

"In the next year, 1838, the French authorities received a visit from an American with a proposal for a 'telegraph' utilizing electrical wires: Samuel F. B. Morse. They turned him down flat. Compared to the majestic semaphore, electricity seemed gimcrack and insecure. No one could interfere with telegraph signals in the sky, but wire could be cut by saboteurs."

"[Kurt Gödel] was about to make the most important statement, prove the most important theorem about knowledge in the twentieth century. He was going to kill Russell's dream of a perfect logical system. He was going to show that the paradoxes were not excrescences; they were fundamental."

"It would be an exaggeration to say that no one knew what entropy meant. Still, it was one of those words. The rumor at Bell Labs was that Shannon had gotten it from John von Neumann, who advised him he would win every argument because no one would understand it."

"Schrödinger felt that evading the second law for a while, or seeming to, is exactly why a living creature 'appears so enigmatic.' The organism's ability to feign perpetual motion leads so many people to believe in a special, supernatural life force."

"Monod proposed an analogy: Just as the biosphere stands above the world of nonliving matter, so an 'abstract kingdom' rises above the biosphere. The denizens of this kingdom? Ideas."

"It was bad enough to say that a person is merely a gene's way of making more genes. Now humans are to be considered as vehicles for the propagation of memes, too. No one likes to be called a puppet."

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