Book Review: “A Mind at Play”

A Mind At Play by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman should be on every techie’s gift list this year because it is superb and because everyone in a technology or information field should know who Claude Shannon is.

When Jimmy Soni offered me a review copy of this new biography of Claude Shannon, I immediately said yes. I knew a little about Shannon from reading The Idea Factory and The Information, and I was looking forward to learning more. The results in A Mind At Play are just what I hoped for.

Soni and Goodman do an excellent job of presenting Shannon’s technical work  to a mostly lay audience, although there is enough depth (and footnotes) to allow you to dig deeper if you are interested. The explanation of his information theory work is clearly laid out and builds from the simplifying model of how communication works to the stochastic analysis of letter frequency and redundancy to finally reach the description of the Shannon limit on the communication speed over any medium. They also cover his contributions in other fields like genetics and mathematics.

The technical sections are interspersed with anecdotes from his life, from his education through his career at Bell Labs and MIT, showing how his continual “constructive dissatisfaction” with the state of the world served as a motivating force in his exploration of a wide range of topics. He set his own course and focused on the things he wanted to, and was privileged to have the freedom to do so. While some of the topics seemed like play, his work always exposed something new; at least to him.

For more details, download this interview with the authors on the Software Engineering Daily podcast.