I've never heard of Claude Shannon, till I came across this article about him on Quanta Magazine. Shannon was a genius - a scientist, an electrical engineer, and a mathematician - whose groundbreaking work on communication made possible the Information Age as we know it today.
I know I should read up more about him, about his life, and about his work (and I do intend to, soon) before I should dream about writing a post about him - but I need to make note of how much this article has inspired me. The author David Tse described Shannon as a "lone genius" who "invented the future." I'm not an engineer or a mathematician, and although I'm interested in Information Technology, it's quite unlikely that I would ever have to refer to any of Shannon's writings for my own research in social science (at least for now). But I'm drawn to his approach to the pursuit of knowledge. In this post, I'd like to list down lessons I learned from Shannon's scholarly life as described by Tse in his article. These are lessons that I hope to emulate in my own academic journey, and also in my life in general.
Lesson 1: Aim big
The article revealed how Shannon's work had been impactful since the very beginning. Upon graduating from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and mathematics, Shannon wrote a thesis for his Master's at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The work ended up being transformative - one that "is now considered to have been the starting point of digital circuit design."
Shannon was clearly ahead of his time. But after achieving a success of this magnitude, he didn't stop there. He moved on to a bigger goal, which was to transform the way humans communicate.
Lesson 2: Look for a unifying point (this might take some time, but it's okay)
Before Shannon published his seminal work A Mathematical Theory of Communication in 1948 (which took him a decade to complete), communication systems had always been about "specific sources" and "physical medium."
Shannon was not satisfied with complying with the way things were. He was brave enough to think out of the box, to ask a question that no one in the field seemed to have asked before. He was looking for "a grand unified theory for communication," - and he found it.
I learned that this philosophy is applicable not only in academic, but also in life. I'm stating this because this lesson resonates with me in more ways than one. Recently, I've been reflecting on the value of finding a unifying point that would harmonise the different aspects of my life, as opposed to treating them as disparate entities. Modern advice seems to advocate compartmentalisation, and for a long time, this is an ideal I've been subscribing to. The pandemic, the lockdowns, having to work from home while simultaneously juggling the needs of my family have made compartmentalising very difficult - almost impossible, actually. Have I been doing it wrong all these whiles? Life consists of different aspects - yes. But these different aspects are so overlapping and intricately intertwined; I can't do one without the other. Maybe compartmentalising, drawing boundaries, and separating different aspects of life as if they're totally unconnected aren't the best ways to go. Maybe harmonising everything through one unifying point is something that I should consider doing more seriously from now on.
The unifying point might be different from person to person. I have decided that my unifying point should be my faith. I hope to write more about this in a future post.
Lesson 3: Simplicity is key
Tse wrote, "The heart of his theory is a simple but very general model of communication." Then Tse went on to describe how despite its simplicity, Shannon's theory captures some very key insights which are crucial in addressing the main issues in communication systems.
A work doesn't have to be complicated to be groundbreaking. I often think (and have been advised to think) that in order to make a contribution in my field, I need to come up with something that's not there yet. In other words, I need to create something new. But Shannon showed that sometimes what's needed is simply to point people towards the right direction. In Shannon's case, it isn't about creating something new. It's about highlighting the obvious stuffs that have gone under the radar because people have been focusing on something else that's more aligned to general intuitions of the day.
Tse commented: "Shannon’s general theory of communication is so natural that it’s as if he discovered the universe’s laws of communication, rather than inventing them."
How did Shannon do it? Through investing all his time and energy on things that he believes matter. Tse offers that Shannon had focused "relentlessly on the essential feature of a problem while ignoring all other aspects." I've been allowing too many stuffs to clutter my mind in my quest towards contributing something that I hope would be valuable. It's time to declutter my life and make things more simple so I can focus on what matters.
Lesson 4: Uncertainty is to be embraced
Shannon was the first in his field to observe that "the key to communication is uncertainty." Tse pointed out that this observation "shifted the communication problem from the physical to the abstract." Uncertainty allowed Shannon to use probability to draw up his theory of communication, which is at the same time a theory of how "information is produced and transferred - an information theory." As a result of this theory, Shannon is known as the "father of information theory."
I'm aware that this article refers to "uncertainty" and "probability" as engineering / mathematical terms in relation to communication / information systems. But at philosophical level, this truth still holds. Transferring the lesson to my own personal pursuit of knowledge, I'm reminded of instances where some things tend to be generally perceived as concrete, physical, and tangible. Treating these things as being abstract and uncertain might invite raised eyebrows. Being the amateur that I am, I often retract despite knowing that I might find something useful if I press on. It would be far from groundbreaking or world-changing, but what I would discover might be helpful in my pursuit of understanding. And this, I believe, is the main reason why I embark on this journey.
Lesson 5: Don't be afraid to be different
The article describes how Shannon's theory has led to "counterintuitive" and "unexpected" conclusions. As a result, he was deemed esoteric by fellow engineers of his time. But if it wasn't for his courage to be different, we might not know communication and information systems as we know them today. Tse pointed out that "Shannon's theory has now become the standard framework underlying all modern-day communication systems." Shannon discovered his landmark theory 70 years ago. He passed away in 2001, but his legacy lives on in the technology that surrounds us today and for many more years to come.
Familiarity gives me a safe place, a feeling of security, a sense of belonging. It takes a lot of courage to do something that no one else is doing, to be alone, to be perceived as a weirdo. But as evidenced through Shannon's life (and the lives of many other prominent scholars and inspiring people who have changed the world), taking the road less taken is not only worthwhile; it is necessary sometimes.
Pruning the Tree versus Adding my Twigs
I'll end this post with Tse's concluding paragraphs:
"When I started graduate school, my adviser told me that the best work would prune the tree of knowledge, rather than grow it. I didn’t know what to make of this message then; I always thought my job as a researcher was to add my own twigs. But over my career, as I had the opportunity to apply this philosophy in my own work, I began to understand."
"When Shannon began studying communication, engineers already had a large collection of techniques. It was his unifying work that pruned all these twigs of knowledge into a single coherent and lovely tree — one that’s borne fruit for generations of scientists, mathematicians and engineers."
Pruning the twigs of knowledge into a single coherent and lovely tree. That should be the aim.
~ccj, Duvanson, 10.57pm
Tse, David (December 22, 2020). How Claude Shannon's Information Theory Invented the Future. Quanta Magazine. Link