How to annoy Claude Shannon

Claude Shannon
Claude Shannon

From an interview of Claude Shannon with Robert Price…

Price: And for a long time I was under the misapprehension that you had been a student of Wiener’s [Norbert Wiener] before the war but that was never the case. You were in the same department together, right, and you must have seen each other, but you were never a student?

Shannon: I was a student in one class. I took a course in Fourier analysis.

Price: I see, and where were you?

Shannon: I didn’t have him as a doctoral student.

Price: No, I see. I was under that misapprehension for a while. Fortunately, I corrected that. But then where did you get the idea that information could be modeled, I mean when did you get it? You got it from Wiener, I believe,

Shannon: No, I didn’t.

Price: … that information could be modeled as a random process?

Shannon: No.

Price: Where did that come from then? Did it come out of cryptography?

Shannon: No.

Price: Because he’s generally attributed — you know, he generally has the attribution for that, he has the credit for that modeling of information as a random process,

Shannon: Well, I don’t believe his model.

Price: Noise is a random process, but the idea that information would be a random process . . .

Shannon: Well, I don’t know. I hadn’t even heard about the statement that you just made.

Price: That he generally gets the credit for modeling information as a random process?

Shannon: No.

Price: Well, you actually have that as a footnote [on pp. 52-53] in your, 1948 publication A Mathematical Theory of Communication, it may have been a . . .

Shannon: What does it say?

Price: OK, let me just — I have that here because I want to get that autographed too. I thought that . . . that that did come from Wiener, but that he had never carried it very far. It was just a philosophical notion of his, I thought. Of course . . .

Shannon: Well, this doesn’t say anything about information at all.

Price: No, no, it certainly doesn’t

Shannon: This is the Ergodic Theorem which has to do with averaging over space as contrasted with averaging in time.

Price: OK, I didn’t remember that too accurately. Of course in the early 1930s he did the Generalized Harmonic Analysis for stochastic functions. But he didn’t at that time say, I guess, that a stochastic function could be a model of an information process.

Shannon: I don’t think he ever did.

Price: Did he never say it before the book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine?

Shannon: Well, not that I know of. Not that I know of.

Price: I see, well would you be suggesting that maybe it was the other way around?

Shannon: Oh, I think so. I do indeed.

Price: Oh, well, it’s very important to have this on tape then. So now, it wasn’t given to you even by cryptography? I mean when did it occur to you that information could be modeled as a random process?

Yarden Katz is a fellow in the Dept. of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.

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