Once in a while, I decide to read about something I haven’t before. Could be just about anything. Yes, I am one of those people that will occasionally read through a dictionary. I’ve learned quite a bit by doing that. I realize there’s a lot of knowledge out there in books and other print that will probably never make it to the web, but I’m still amazed by the internet. I try not to take it for granted. There are some days that the choices feel too overwhelming, or I just don’t care for anything new, even the weather. But most of the time, I’m still fascinated by the opportunity to go almost anywhere, into almost any subject, with one search on a browser. Life is just too short though.
The first thing I read was that Shannon was Claude Elwood Shannon, born in Petoskey, Michigan in 1916, the same year as my grandfather, and he grew up in Gaylord, Michigan of all places. That was completely unexpected. But the rest of his story is far more fascinating. Together with the story of Norbert Wiener, this little tangent led to some of that rare historical treasure that I sometimes dig up. But now, knowing about these two men, I feel a little stupid for not having known about them a long time ago.
|Gaylord and Petoskey, Michigan, in the northern Lower Peninsula.|
|Claude Elwood Shannon. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Shannon|
|Vannevar Bush with his differential analyzer. Bush’s Analog Solution. Computer History museum: http://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/analog-computers/3/143|
|Claude Shannon. DaTuOpinion: http://www.datuopinion.com/claude-shannon|
|Claude Shannon with Theseus the intelligent electronic mouse.|
|Claude Shannon. Virtual Panorama. The Universe Of Information At Your Service: https://tupanoramavirtual.wordpress.com/2015/11/02/si-hoy-la-informacion-viaja-como-ceros-y-unos-es-en-gran-parte-gracias-a-george-boole/|
|The Shannon-Wiener Diversity Index, or entropy, equation.|
|Claude Shannon: www.acilinyeri.org|
Shannon loved to build complex and odd machines. It might even be more correct to say that he worked professionally on the side. He was quoted in a 1987 OMNI magazine article, which I used to read, “I was always interested in building things with funny motions”. This goes back to his youth in Gaylord, Michigan, where most boys were probably more interested in hunting and fishing, but instead, he was busy building model planes, radios, a radio-controlled model boat, and a telegraph. So, at the University of Michigan in 1932, he said he had no hesitation about majoring in electrical engineering. The many unique things he built throughout his life included: rocket-powered flying discs; a motorized pogo stick; a flame-throwing trumpet; the “THROBAC” or “THrifty ROman-numerical BAckward-looking Computer” which calculated and displayed Roman numerals; the “Ultimate Machine”, a box with a switch on the side that when switched on would activate an arm to reach out from a lid on the box, switch itself off, and return inside the box; a mechanical version of W.C. Fields that could juggle; a machine that could solve the Rubik’s Cube; one of the first computer chess programs; and his famous mechanical mouse “Theseus” that learned how to navigate mazes with the help of telephone relay circuits. Shannon’s “ultimate machine” recreations have been popular in internet videos in recent years. He used to keep his, the original, on his desk at work. You can also watch video of his mouse “Theseus” in action with a detailed explanation provided by Shannon while he was working for Bell Laboratories. He also co-invented a wearable computer that he used while playing roulette in Las Vegas. By this point, he had gotten into game theory, which allowed him to do very well in the casinos and the stock market.
There are a few videos on YouTube with Claude Shannon and some of his creations.
So who was Wiener? Norbert Wiener, the man credited with co-developing the Shannon-Wiener Diversity Index, was a boy genius from Columbia, Missouri of Polish, German, and Jewish ancestry. His father, a professor of Slavic languages at Harvard, was determined that his son should be a prominent scholar and home-schooled Norbert until he was 9. He graduated from high school at 11, earned a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics at 14, and a PhD in mathematics from Harvard at the age of 18. In 1914, he went off to Cambridge University in England and the University of Goettingen in Germany to study philosophy, logic, and mathematics. Wiener seemed to be interested in all kinds of things. He even studied zoology. At the outbreak of World War I, he returned to the US and taught philosophy at Harvard. He then worked as an engineer for General Electric, and wrote for the Encyclopedia Americana.
|Young student Norbert Wiener. Polymath Matematica e ist:|
Young Norbert Wiener. Norbert Wiener Portraits:
|Professor Wiener in the MIT classroom with the tricycle cart.|
Norbert Wiener, father of cybernetics and prophet forgotten: https://blogs.mediapart.fr/marc-tertre/blog/050613/norbert-wiener-pere-de-la-cybernetique-et-prophete-oublie
|Page of letter to his sister Bertha. Wiener Autograph Image: http://libraries.mit.edu/|
|Dr Norbert Wiener (credit Life Magazine) |
Enroque de ciencia. Norbert Wiener, un hombre despistado:http://enroquedeciencia.blogspot.com/2014_02_01_archive.html
|It appears Norbert Wiener was an ecologist after all.|
As impressed as I am with Shannon and Wiener, after having read about them through several different sources, I have become a little more skeptical of solely crediting individual scientists with major accomplishments and labeling this man or that, “the father of” whatever. Sorry ladies, but it seems rarely in science have I read about “the mother of”. Clearly, certain people are responsible for major breakthroughs, but if you dig a little deeper you will often find how much they were influenced by someone else. There is the recurring phenomenon of two individuals, completely isolated from each other, hitting upon the same idea or discovery at about the same time, as though they are two particles in quantum entanglement. But, then there are those relationships that are obvious, where one person very clearly built upon the foundation created by someone else. So, not to take away from the impressive and fascinating achievements of Shannon and Wiener, but as I write, I constantly feel like maybe I should be reading more about the work of 10 or 15 other people who are mentioned in passing.