Author: gleick

Where Are They Now: Bell Labs

[pullquote align=”right”] Claude Shannon’s managers were willing to leave him alone, even though they did not understand exactly what he was working on. AT&T at mid-century did not demand instant gratification from its research division. It allowed detours into mathematics or astrophysics with no apparent purpose. —The Information[/pullquote] Information theory was born at Bell Labs; so was the transistor. Bell Labs scientists laid foundations for radio astronomy and the laser. When I first visited, in 1993, Arno Penzias was running the place as Chief Scientist; he was just one of the laboratory’s many winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, for his discovery of the cosmic black-body radiation echoing across the universe from the Big Bang. Not many corporate research labs have ever operated with such far-sighted freedom from the bottom line. Now hardly any do. Claude Shannon did his great work in a cubbyhole in this 1900 building, the old New York headquarters, the Hudson River to the west, Greenwich Village to the east. That’s the High Line running through it. The building is …

Face Direction of Travel

I’m just back from a short trip to England to talk about The Information. There was a lot of tweeting. For example, while I was speaking early one afternoon at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, some in the audience were surreptitiously thumbing their little devices. Or not even surreptitiously—there was an official hashtag. One listener tweeted in real time: James Gleick talk at the RSA “The Information”. Interesting nuggets, but I’m not really getting the big picture. I entirely sympathize. Two days later, at the British Library, I interrupted myself and asked whether anyone was tweeting. I didn’t see any hands go up. I hope I didn’t sound confrontational about it. I could read their tweets afterward. The BBC correspondent Nick Higham interviewed me at the Science Museum for his program, Meet the Author, and immediately tweeted as follows: I guess not. I’m trying, though.

Information is How We Know

When Kevin Kelly interviewed me about The Information for Wired, he asked me to define the word, and I was unprepared. I did some hemming and hawing (which he mercifully omitted). I see it continues to trouble him. Others have asked me the same question, and I continue to hem and haw. You might think I would have it figured out by now. The problem of definition runs as a a minor thread throughout my book. The very idea that a word has a definition is surprisingly new—barely 400 years old. You might think it is obvious, but it is not. People managed to use words for millennia without worrying too much. John Locke felt it necessary to explain in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding: Definition being nothing but making another understand by Words, what Idea the term defined stands for. In the very first English dictionary, Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall in 1604, we see that defining words is not so easy. I quote a few of my favorite Cawdrey definitions (in their entirety): crocodile, [kind …

Autocorrect, Unexpurgated

I mention a certain writer in an email, and the reply comes back: “Comcast McCarthy??? Phoner novelist???” Oops. Did I really call him “Comcast”? No. The great god Autocorrect has struck again. It is an impish god. I try retyping the name on a different device. This time the letters reshuffle themselves into “Format McCarthy.” Welcome to the club, Format. Meet the Danish astronomer Touchpad Brahe and the Franco-American actress Natalie Portmanteau. In past times we were responsible for our own typographical errors. Now Autocorrect has taken charge. This is no small matter. It is a step in our new evolution—the grafting of silicon into our formerly carbon-based species, in the name of collective intelligence. Or unintelligence, as the case may be. A few months ago the police in Hall County, Ga., locked down the West Hall schools for two hours after someone received a text message saying, “gunman be at west hall today.” The texter had tried to type “gunna,” but Autocorrect had a better idea. “Dictionaries have a lot of trouble keeping up …

The Google Books Settlement, R.I.P.

Many people, including some I greatly respect, are gleeful about the demise of the arduously worked out settlement of the lawsuits brought by the Authors Guild and book publishers against Google. Not me. It certainly wasn’t perfect. It involved some messy compromises, as settlements tend to do. It couldn’t satisfy everyone. In creating a vast and widely accessible digital library, bringing back to life many forgotten books, it seemed to give Google, a private corporation, too much power over what, in an ideal world, should be a public resource. (“Public” most emphatically not being a synonym for “free.”) So now what? I fear that many people underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead. The New York Times editorial page does, and it botches the law by saying, “Google’s loss means that, for now, its search results will show only snippets of text from books that are under copyright but out of print.” Quite the contrary. Judge Denny Chin stated clearly that Google was not entitled to copy these books onto its servers in the first place: …

Ta! Ra! Ra! Boom De Yay!

Poetry or doggerel? Oh, who cares. John Horgan has unearthed and now presents some verse written by Claude Shannon in 1981, at the height of the Rubik’s Cube craze. Shannon was, of course, the creator of what is now called information theory; he is the central figure in my new book, where I mention that he liked game-playing and never lost his childlike sense of fun. Case in point: “A Rubric on Rubik Cubics.” Shannon includes footnotes, in the spirit, he says, of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” He advises, “this may be either read as a poem or sung to ‘Ta! Ra! Ra! Boom De Yay!’ with an eight-bar chorus.” One of the verses turns (and this, too, is entirely characteristic) to the subject of human vs. machine intelligence: The issue’s joined in steely grip: Man’s mind against computer chip. With theorems wrought by Conway’s eight ‘Gainst programs writ by Thistlethwait. Can multibillion-neuron brains Beat multimegabit machines? The thrust of this theistic schism— To ferret out God’s algorism! For the whole poem, with …

Now Chaos Is “Enhanced”

“Enhanced” is the word of the day for e-books. It strikes fear into the hearts of some authors, and maybe some readers, too. There is the question of hyperlinks. Let’s say my book begins this way: The police in the small town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, worried briefly in 1974 … One doesn’t want the reader yanked away to a page listing the Great Luxury Hotels of Los Alamos. Or to any page. One wants the reader to get sucked into the book, there to remain. Yet e-books have new possibilities, and authors are beginning to explore them. The very creative people at Open Road Media have now published two of my books, Chaos and Genius, in electronic form, for all devices. The enhanced Chaos gave us a chance to illustrate some of the ideas and the science in ways that break through the limitations of the printed page. Strange attractors are not, after all, static two-dimensional objects; with videos and applets, we can present them as they were meant to be seen all along. …

We shed as we pick up …

I hope I’ll make it to the new Broadway production of Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece Arcadia. This play goes for my jugular. The heartbreaking, extraordinary Thomasina; Lord Byron lurking offstage; the garden and the wilderness; the carnal embrace in the gazebo. Stoppard says all there is to say about chaos and fractals better than I ever managed: “The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about—clouds—daffodils—waterfalls—and what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in—these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks.” And I quote Arcadia all over again in The Information: the unexpected, wise response of Septimus to Thomasina’s grief over the ancient destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria (“All the lost plays of the Athenians!”): We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. …