Friday, May 17, 2013

It from Bits & Bytes?: A review of James Gleick's "The Information."

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodThe Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
Leo's Rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have not been this impressed with a general math/ science book since reading Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach /. Gleick's The Information introduces the reader in a pretty straight-forward way to the history of information. You learn about a lot of the key concepts -- coding, cryptography, the relationship between information & probability & entropy. And that Gleick manages to do this without reverting to the tough and often difficult math of information theory is remarkable. Since most people tend to freak out at when they see equations like this, the key equation of Information theory:

Information Theory's key equation
Fig. 1: Formula for amount of information contained within a system. 
What makes the equation interesting is that it is the same equation that describes the level of entropy, or disorder, in classical Thermodynamics. So it appears that information is essentially a force for ordering -- and is thus dis-entropic in physical systems.

And Gleick gleefully follows these ideas into some interesting fields. Of course, Information Theory stands behind computers. But it also explains the power of Gutenburg's printing press and literacy, a technology that allowed for completely reliable, accurate and interchangeable transcriptions of texts. And how this increased ability to capture and interpret information led to necessary standardization of core vocabulary (so we could understand each other better). And yet, instead of making us more regiments, those "redundancies" in language and vocabulary were, in a sense, necessary to creating truly noteworthy contributions to the world of information.

Because, following the laws of Information Theory, the most valuable message follows the rules just enough to be understood. But random enough to grant us surprise. Like, say, the regualr, almost mechanical fugues of Bach. That, for all their repetitions and formulaic adherence, still manage to delight listeners. Even today.

Gleick then expands his reach from the human world. And shows how scientist are applying the Theory to observed phenomena. He introduces us to Quantum Information Theory ("it from bit"). And how Information Theory has she light in evolution (through Dawkins) and how cells interpret the genetic code.

But Gleick finishes up on a cliff-hanger of sorts. Because, the theory addresses only information. And treats false information the same as true. And how our modern communications channels amplify these errors -- consider that about of Americans think that Barack Obama is a Muslim, despite the evidence. And points to the next level that needs to be approached: "Semantics."

But that, no doubt, is another book.

Overall, a great book. Better than Gleick's other excellent foray into theory, Chaos , The Information is a super enjoyable, easy to read book. That updated a lot of my internal paradigms about the current state of mathematical descriptions of the world that scientists apply. And made me think about communications channels -- Sender & Message & Encoding & Decoding & Receivers -- in a way that was refreshingly new.

Recommended for all science fans. And also anyone interested in communications -- writers, poets, artists, Web designers, etc.

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