Claude Elwood Shannon

American mathematician and information theorist (1916–2001)

Claude Elwood Shannon (April 30, 1916February 24, 2001) was an American electrical engineer and mathematician, has been called "the father of information theory", and was the founder of practical digital circuit design theory.

Claude E. Shannon


  • A few first rate research papers are preferable to a large number that are poorly conceived or half-finished. The latter are no credit to their writers and a waste of time to their readers.
    • IRE Transactions on Information Theory (1956), volume 2, issue 1, page 3. Shannon, Claude E. (March 1956), The Bandwagon, 2, doi:10.1109/TIT.1956.1056774 .
  • This duality can be pursued further and is related to a duality between past and future and the notions of control and knowledge. Thus we may have knowledge of the past but cannot control it; we may control the future but have no knowledge of it.
  • My greatest concern was what to call it. I thought of calling it 'information,' but the word was overly used, so I decided to call it 'uncertainty.' When I discussed it with John von Neumann, he had a better idea. Von Neumann told me, 'You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, no one really knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.'
    • Scientific American (1971), volume 225, page 180.
    • Explaining why he named his uncertainty function "entropy".
  • Omni: Do you find it depressing that chess computers are getting so strong?
    Shannon: I am not depressed by it. I am rooting for the machines! I have always been on the machines' side. Ha-ha!
    Betty Shannon: Some people get livid when he says that.
    Shannon: I am not depressed by machines getting better. Whether people will be replaced by machines that have gotten smarter in all things, I can't say. Within a century or so, machines will be doing almost everything better than we can. They already do factory work better than we can, but the highly intellectual stuff is going to come later. It gets harder and harder as you get higher and higher in this game.
    Omni: Do you agree with Norbert Wiener's denial of any basic distinction between life and nonlife, man and machine?
    Shannon: That's a heavily loaded question there! I'm an atheist to begin with. I believe in evolutionary theory and that we are basically machines but of a very complex type, far more so than any machine that man has made yet. So that's both a yes and a no. Mechanical doesn't just mean that metal and gears are involved, of course. We are the extreme case: a natural mechanical device. I see no God involved.
    Omni: Will robots be complex enough to be friends of people?
    Shannon: I think so. I myself could very easily imagine that happening. I see no limit to the capabilities of machines. As microchips get smaller and faster, I can see them getting better than we are. I can visualize a time in the future when we will be to robots as dogs are to humans.
    Omni: Can you imagine a robot president of the United States?
    Shannon: Could be, but I think by then you wouldn't speak of the United States anymore. The world will have a totally different organization.
    Omni: Is it a big leap from the pedestrian routines of today's chess computers to machines that could grapple, seemingly in a creative, intuitive fashion, with the problems of higher mathematics?
    Shannon: I see computers proving theorems that have been sitting around that nobody's proved. I don't yet see them creating theories, that is, discovering a new branch of mathematics, as many great mathematicians have in the past. That's a broader, wider thing—more like writing a play—and will be a lot longer in coming.
    Omni: Is your famous proof that a reliable circuit can be built from unreliable components relevant to the brain's operations?
    Shannon: The brain can suffer all kinds of damage and yet can still handle things pretty well. It must use some redundancy to take care of faulty operations, such as the death of certain neurons. The modern desk computer generally has no redundancy, so if one part gets into trouble, that will show up in later operations. That we manage to live in spite of all kinds of internal troubles suggests that the brain's design involves a great deal of redundancy or parallelism of multiple units.
    Omni: Your paper shows that if the relays closed only sixty percent of the time when triggered, you could have highly effective circuitry. Could the brain be using such an approach?
    Shannon: That the brain has ten billion neurons probably means it was cheaper for biology to make more components than to work out sophisticated circuits. Yet I am totally astounded at how clever and sophisticated some of the things we see in human or animal bodies are. Such long-term, sophisticated changes could be what happened in the brain, but an easier way would be to use paralleling and multiplication to reduce errors of individual neuron operation. And when it all gets going, we have these clever people like Einstein.
    Omni: Has your ambition waned at all?
    Shannon: I was never motivated by the notion of winning prizes or the desire for financial gain. My motivation in science has always been curiosity about something: How is it put together? What laws or rules govern this situation? Are there any theorems one can prove about what one can or can’t do? After I had found answers, it was always painful to publish, which is where you get the acclaim. Many things I have done and never written up at all. Too lazy, I guess. I have got a file upstairs of unfinished papers! Ha-ha-ha! But that’s true of most of the good scientists I know. Just knowing for ourselves is probably our main motivation.
  • Although perhaps of no practical importance, the question is of theoretical interest, and it is hoped that a satisfactory solution of this problem will act as a wedge in attacking other problems of a similar nature and of greater significance.
    • "Programming a Computer for Playing Chess"[1]

Quotes about Shannon

  • Well, I got interested in it when Shannon's and Wiener's work appeared. The curious thing is that, during several years, between '41 and '45, Claude Shannon and I lived in the same house at 51 West 11th Street. It was a small brownstone belonging to an old Italian who rented studios. Shannon was in one and I in another.
    • Claude Lévi-Strauss, in Bernadette Bucher and Claude Lévi-Strauss, "An Interview with Claude Lévi-Strauss, 30 June 1982", American Ethnologist, Vol. 12, No. 2 (May, 1985)
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