Much Ado About Information

June 21, 2011

Book Review
Philip J. Davis


The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. By James Gleick, Pantheon/Random House, New York, 2011, 544 pages (including about 70 pages of notes), $29.95.

"I was misinformed."---Rick, Casablanca

James Gleick, a prolific, prize-winning, and well-informed author, has produced an Old Curiosity Shop of a book. He has certainly given us a flood, as promised in his title. He has given us a gush, a tsunami of the pertinent, the tangential, and all the way to the quite omittable.

There is no point in reproducing here the long entry in my dictionary for "information." We all know what information is. If I were to say that information is anything that comes to us through our senses of sight, touch, smell, taste, hearing, and through our autonomous body functions, I would have omitted all the extrasensory senses, such as intuition, that researchers have found and expounded in great detail. If I were to say that information is transmitted by voice or cell phone or letter, I would be omitting such mechanisms as alpenhorns or ram's horns or the bullhorns of soapbox orators, as well as bugle taps at sunrise. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, information is conveyed by a dog that didn't bark or by five orange pips in an envelope. But think also of information communicated via torches or flashlights, semaphore signals, or homing pigeons. Then also there is information said to be transmitted by telepathy, or clairvoyance, or by the revelations of a ouija board or of the priestess of the Delphic oracle.

We know that information is found, in-vented, represented, accumulated, taxonomized, transmitted, corrupted, interpreted, perceived, hidden. It is often made ambiguous; it gets leaked and wikified and plagiarized. Information is praised, and it is lied and worried about. Information is criticized, mathematized and quantized; it gets acted on.

We come to understand that no piece of information exists in abstract isolation. Rather, information emerges from a physical, historical, economic, biographical, aesthetic, psychological, philosophical, semantic, or semiotic context. It emerges from what has been called the "infosphere" of daily existence that cohabits shamelessly with the biosphere.

The book begins with a passage about the drums of primitive sub-Saharan tribes. This is followed by essays on words, language, their representation, and the problems of producing dictionaries. Then comes Babbage, with his idea of mechanizing thought and his relation to Ada, Countess Lovelace. Then it's on to the history of telegraphy, telephony, and Morse-type coding. Having introduced coding, Gleick mentions, as a lagniappe, five authors, among them Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne, who introduced cryptograms in their fiction. This reminded me that Mary, Queen of Scots, under house arrest by her cousin Queen Elizabeth, used code to communicate with her supporters. We are now about one third of the way through the book.

What about numbers? We are instructed about normal numbers, computable numbers, prime numbers, Ryland numbers, Fibonacci numbers, Carmichael numbers, Zeisel numbers, Euler pseudoprimes, RSA encryption numbers. As the cherry on top of the cake, we can savor the factorization of an integer whose digits are spread over four lines.

In Sir Isaiah Berlin's characterization of people as foxes or hedgehogs, the fox knows many little things, the hedgehog one big thing. Gleick, the author of such books on science as Chaos: Making a New Science and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, is, I believe, both a fox and a hedgehog. He can inform us, on the one hand, that the name Napier (of logarithms) has been spelled in five different ways. On the other hand, in chapter 9, he presents us with a lecture on entropy (a very big idea) in the course of which he mentions Rudolf Claudius, Claude Shannon, John von Neumann, James Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, H.G. Wells, Ludwig Boltzmann, Josiah Gibbs, Lord Rayleigh, Tom Stoppard, William Shakespeare, Henry Adams, Henri Poincaré, Leo Szilard, Carl Eckhart, Alan Turing, Norbert Wiener, Erwin Schrödinger, Leon Brillouin, David Watson, and Peter Lansberg.

Similarly, Gleick notes that a certain Caspar Ratzenberger, who assembled a herbarium in the 1550s, found eleven names in Latin and Greek for one species of plant. But Gleick also devotes many, many pages to the life, work, and thoughts of Claude Shannon. I suspect---pure conjecture on my part---that the book started out as an exposition of Shannon's life and theories, and then grew and grew. "Exponentially," as we read now in the media.

Moreover, as I intimated earlier, Gleick devotes twenty-five pages to the history and problems associated with the creation of English-language dictionaries. As a frequent author and "looker-upper," I enjoyed this section particularly. I had known about Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary, as well as James Murray and the OED. I had read a review of a 1977 biography of Murray, Caught in the Web of Words, written by his granddaughter, a book that also deals with Murray's fellow lexicographer C.T. Onions. In college, I had read H.L. Mencken's wonderful The American Language. But Sprat, Cawdrey, Weaver, Southwell, Mulcaster, Vautroullier, Simpson, Wilson, Coote, Johannus Balbus, Thomas, Locke, Lever, Bullokar, Blount, Burney, Bradley, Craigie, Burchfeld, King George V, Calvin Coolidge, Sondra Smalley, W.H. Auden, Burgess, T.S. Eliot, Fielding, Swift, Cooper, Gilliver, Wright, Percy, Pinker, and their contributions or reactions to dictionaries were all new to me.

Another of Gleick's big concepts is that of a "meme," coined and called to our attention in 1976 by zoologist Richard Dawkins, so that it is not yet in my Webster. A meme is an oft repeated phrase, such as "baby aboard" or "the survival of the fittest," or an image, or an idea that has the potential for frequent application, replicability, expansion, parody, or misuse. My favorite meme is when a waitress looks from above at my plate and asks, "Are you still working on that?"

Gleick points out that self-referencing is the basis of numerous paradoxes. One of his topics is information overload, to which he devotes five or six pages. This book is self-referential in that respect: It is overloaded. It is no paradox that my brain started whirling in an attempt to find sufficient gray cells to store all Gleick's information about information. Well, it's that kind of a book. You really can't read it, but you can dip into it, sip it, often for instruction, often for pleasure.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at philip_davis@brown.edu.



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