Thursday, April 19, 2007

Once upon a time

I jus finished reading one of the most prolific books about science, by John Gribbin, called;

Science: A History.

The book begins in the Renaissance & chronologically moves forward towards the modern days. As the title might have given it up, it’s about the history of science, literally. The way concepts were made & proved & how they affect our lives today.

The book talks mainly about the ‘scientific method’, which is constant experimentation to reach a factual conclusion. These conclusions now have become the facts of life. Say, the earth revolving around the sun & not the other way round as presumed before Copernicus. But more important than the conclusions are a few odd phenomena which need to be illuminated.


Imagine a time, when a person A sits around leisurely thinking generally about life, the things around him, the nature and so on. Suddenly he makes an observation which triggers some rapid thought flow in his brain. Instantaneously he tries to come up with an explanation (he philosophizes) for the observation. Rather than reaching any fair conclusion he keeps mulling about the same ‘theory’. He quotes the theory, gets it published & a century later another such gentleman B thinking on the same lines, having already read A’s theory, makes a similar observation. Now, B being more thorough in his approach investigates & conducts experiments to be sure of the observation. He finds the theory accurate or in some cases inaccurate & thus through valid experimentation concludes the theory as a usable fact. From then on, further research is carried on over the same fact & it is improvised to expand the original theory’s application into various fields.

Scene 2:

Imagine P, Q, R & S belonging to the same era. All of them working at four different corners of the world, on a same theory/concept say X. Lets assume that they have the same reference material available till that date. Without each other’s consent or knowledge, they come up independently with a factual answer for an age old theory, giving birth to a new possibility, new science, new application, new technology.

Scene 3:

Imagine X, Y & Z being born 30-40 years apart from each other. X proves a theory & makes it a fact, through rigorous experiments. Y uses X’s work to make a better theory or enhance or improvise the concept. Further Z uses the advantage of both X & Y’s knowledge to upgrade the whole system or to even discard the whole concept & formulate a better one.

The above 3 scenes are the classic setups for some of the most brilliant works in science, mathematics & philosophy, ever made since the inception of the human race. You can replace any scientist’s or the philosopher’s name for the variables & you’ll find that there hasn’t been a single decade till now, where those plots haven’t occurred or in some cases overlapped.

Where is all this leading? After approaching the history of science from a very objective point of view, every concept becomes easy to comprehend. A sort of eerie interest begins to grow, just like watching a good thriller where the killer hasn’t been identified yet. This curiosity is the most conducive ground to understand the concept, because at this time, we really want to know the whats, hows & whys. On this very fertile ground of curiosity any concept becomes docile & can be poured into the inquisitive minds.

There can be no better time for me to read another prolific book, which I honestly believe must be made compulsory reading for every person studying Information technology & communications. The book’s named Fortune’s Formula by William Poundstone.

Don’t be alarmed by the title, although the name gives a little idea that the book talks about methods of money making, but the origin of that concept from the book is of utmost importance. 6 out of every 10 students in IT or Telecommunication (in INDIA), will definitely not know who Claude Shannon was or how significant was his life’s work. I can say that with such certainty since I am the product of the same system, although being well read, I had always underestimated the reach of Shannon’s contribution.

The book cites these following quotes which give a precise idea of what exactly Shannon’s contribution means today:

Cornell’s Toby Berger on Claude Shannon;

Its said that it is one of the few times in history where somebody founded the field, asked all the right questions, and proved most of them and answered them all at once.’

Solomon Golomb, when asked to characterize Shannon’s achievements in words,

“It’s like saying how much influence the inventor of the alphabet has had on literature.”

To summarize (which is another impossible task right now), Shannon gave us the Information Theory. For the cave men, it is the concept that governs “EVERY” modern communication device including, HDTV’s, Radios, Cellphones, iPods, Internet & so on. Without this, we would still be using a tonne of cabling, a tonne of metal & a tonne of money to send simple data through. Giving you a gist of the information theory, dig this;

(Shannon’s concept of information)

“Information exists only when the sender is saying something that the recipient doesn’t already know and can’t predict. Because true information is unpredictable, it is essentially a series of random events like spins of a roulette wheel or rolls of dice.”

Whoever thought of something like this? Shannon’s theory was so profound for the same reason, no one asked these kinds of questions & no one answered it in this way. Robert Fano, a colleague of Shannon’s once said about him:

“With rare exceptions, it seemed that whenever an information theorist mentioned a current problem to Shannon, (a) Shannon was aware of the problem and (b) Shannon had already solved it, but hadn’t gotten around publishing it.”

Even picturing a world without Shannon seems a daunting & a horrifying task. Using internet for such a long time makes you a part of the whole network. You become the LAN card, you become the Router. When several gigabytes of date jus move from your machine to the world & back on a weekly basis, it seems trivial to keep track of what exactly happens under these layers of sophisticated programming. Shannon’s theory is so practical, that its not only used in communication technology, but also in stock markets, genetics, religion, media, mathematics, artificial intelligence, psychology, linguistics, economics, management….there’s a whole list.

How does one concept affect a whole variety of subjects? Scene 1, 2, 3 encores. There were endless developments on that concept, one of which is enabling me to write this & enabling you to read it.

Such concepts & people come from time to time, they seem to follow their routine course of life & change the courses for centuries to come. They induce their peers & generations to come to break the common conventions & practically think out of the box. One idea spawns a network of ideas, a network of possibilities, a network of knowledge until the actual concept becomes as good as oxygen.

This post goes to Shannon, whose birthday lies on the 30th of April, will be definitely celebrated at this terminal.

Finally, a journalist once said, “NO Shannon, NO Napster” (so true).

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