Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A History, A Theory, A Flood

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick is about, well, information - how it is stored and transmitted and manipulated, and how these things have transformed society. I thought it looked a little dry; to be honest, I was intimidated by its serious cover and its air of mathiness. But Gleick is the author of a biography of Isaac Newton that I enjoyed very much, so I gave it a try. I found it really interesting.

Gleick starts out with talking drums. Early European visitors to Africa knew that the forest was filled with the mysterious sound of drumming, but they didn’t realize until the middle of the 19th century that those drums were actually quite complex coded messages.

Europeans consistently thought of Africans as primitive, animal-like or child-like, which might be why it took them so long to understand the significance of the drums. After all, Europeans had been struggling to find a way to send accurate and complex long-distance messages for a long time. They wouldn’t succeed until the invention of the electric telegraph. The Africans had been doing it for centuries.

Gleick also explains the way the drums worked. The African peoples who used them did not have a written language - so how did they encode these messages? The answer is quite ingenious.

The Information is (to me) most interesting as it delves into history: the differences between Aristotle and Socrates, one literate and one pre-literate; the codebreaking work of 17th century natural philosopher John Wilkins, which foresaw the development of the binary system; the fascinating, failed invention of a thinking machine by Charles Babbage in the 1800s, and the even-more fascinating programming of that machine (entirely conceptual, since it was never built) by Ada Lovelace.

Alan Turing was already one of my heroes due to his World War II codebreaking work and tragic fate; in this book he gets his due as one of the pioneering mathematicians of the modern age. Gleick also delves into how information science came to profoundly influence other sciences, like biology (in the study of genetics) and sociology (memes).

I admit I got a little lost when we got to quantum mechanics, black holes, and chaos theory; but Gleick is such a good writer that I almost understood it. Well, some of it. Maybe.

Even if your grasp of math and science isn’t quite on the cutting edge, The Information is clear, rich, and worth reading if you like history and ideas. It’s much more riveting than that plain black-and-white cover might suggest.

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