Claude Shannon, so little known to the public at large, is one of the scientists that greatly influenced the way our world functions. He achieved this mainly through his Information theory that made instant communications possible. He is a hero of the Cyberspace, as Charles A. Gimon calls him.
Shannon was born in Gaylord, Michigan, on April 30, 1916. His family was fairly well educated so his early environment was one of intellectual stimulation. In fact, he spent his time working with radio kits and Morse code.
In 1936 he received his B.Sc. from the University of Michigan. In 1938, at MIT, he published a seminal paper on the application of symbolic logic to relay circuits. He showed that the TRUE and FALSE aspects of Boolean logic could be seen as the ON and OFF states of an electric switch. For this pioneering work, important for the functioning of both phones and computers, Shannon received his doctorate in 1940.
Starting in 1941, he spent 31 years at Bell Labs as a research mathematician. One of his fields of research involved ways of clearing up noisy telephone connections. In 1948, he published, along with Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication in the Bell System Technical Journal. This document marked the beginning of what is now known as Information theory. This new field of study that Shannon basically started, has made all modern electronic communications possible and has placed Shannon on the same pedestal as Einstein, even though the former is not as famous.
In information theory, the content of a message is irrelevant and all information is treated as quantities. Information theory can be used to find out how much of a channel can be used to transmit useful information without errors. In a way, Shannon's theory, rather than eliminate noise, allowed us to live with it. Anyone using modern communications, from telephones to the Internet, owes a debt to Shannon. Even the commonly used compact disc wouldn't be possible without error correction based on information theory.
Information theory is also important for the statistical analysis of languages, and especially for cryptography. In 1949, Shannon published Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems, a vital paper for modern cryptography. Researchers still try to apply information theory in many other fields like psychology, neurology, and even the study of the universe.
In 1949 Shannon was awarded the Morris Liebman Memorial award. In the same year, he married Mary Elizabeth Moore. They later had four children. In 1957 he became a professor of communication sciences and mathematics at MIT and in 1966 he was awarded the Medal of Honor of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). In that same year, President Lyndon Johnson presented him with the National Medal of Science. In 1985 he received the Kyoto Prize in Basic Science as well as the Audio Engineering Society Gold Medal.
Other than Information theory, Shannon was involved with other technological fields, such as artificial intelligence (AI). Over time he made statements about machines of the future possibly being superior to humans. Such views placed him in a camp with some other late-twentieth-century writers and scientists such as Vernor Vinge and Hans Moravec. In an attempt to research AI, Shannon also constructed game-playing and learning machines .
In the privacy of his home, Shannon took up all sorts of interesting pastimes, especially juggling. Occasionally he was seen juggling his way down the hall to his office at Bell Labs. He even wrote a mathematical analysis of juggling. According to Gimon, "Some minds never rest, even at play."
Shannon retired at the age of 50 but continued to write papers and to construct machines. Tragically, in the early 1990's, he started suffering from the Alzheimers syndrome. Today he remembers nothing and recognizes no one.
Still, the number of people that study his theories remains constant and his contribution to science is undeniable. In fact, there would be no Internet without Shannon's information theory. Shannon will always be a hero of the Cyberspace.
Claude Shannon at the Pioneers site
Short biography from the Claude Shannon Page
Heroes of Cyberspace : Claude Shannonby Charles A. Gimon
Shannon and his machines - picture by Boston photographer Stanley Rowin