The Information

The Information

A History, a Theory, a Flood

James Gleick

Near 105 he wrote something offbeat: “genetic constitution of man.” There was no real precedent for this in current scientific thinking. James D. Watson was a twenty-one-year-old student of zoology in Indiana; the discovery of the structure of DNA lay several years in the future. This was the first time anyone suggested the genome was an information store measurable in bits. Shannon’s guess was conservative, by at least four orders of magnitude. He thought a “phono record (128 levels)” held more information: about 300,000 bits.

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Dr. Wiener sees no reason why they can’t learn from experience, like monstrous and precocious children racing through grammar school. One such mechanical brain, ripe with stored experience, might run a whole industry, replacing not only mechanics and clerks but many of the executives too.… As men construct better calculating machines, explains Wiener, and as they explore their own brains, the two seem more & more alike. Man, he thinks, is recreating himself, monstrously magnified, in his own image.

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He instituted a Noah’s Ark rule, inviting two of each species so that speakers would always have someone present who could see through their jargon

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To say, as the public press says, that therefore these machines are brains, and that our brains are nothing but calculating machines, is presumptuous. One might as well say that the telescope is an eye or that a bulldozer is a muscle.

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Information can be considered as order wrenched from disorder.

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A stranger is at a party of people who know one another well. One says, “72,” and everyone laughs. Another says, “29,” and the party roars. The stranger asks what is going on. His neighbor said, “We have many jokes and we have told them so often that now we just use a number.” The guest thought he’d try it, and after a few words said, “63.” The response was feeble. “What’s the matter, isn’t this a joke?” “Oh, yes, that is one of our very best jokes, but you did not tell it well.”♦

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E. E. Cummings: “Some son-of-a-bitch will invent a machine to measure Spring with.”

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his “diamond code”

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RNA Tie Club

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DNA serves two different functions. First, it preserves information. It does this by copying itself, from generation to generation, spanning eons—a Library of Alexandria that keeps its data safe by copying itself billions of times.

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Gamow framed the issue simply: “The nucleus of a living cell is a storehouse of information.”♦ Furthermore, he said, it is a transmitter of information. The continuity of all life stems from this “information system”

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a hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.

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emphasizing the potential near-immortality of a gene, in the form of copies, as its defining property.” This is where life breaks free from its material moorings. (Unless you already believed in the immortal soul.) The gene is not an information-carrying macromolecule. The gene is the information.

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Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.

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(In the early 1980s, a magazine with a print circulation of 700,000 still seemed like a powerful communications platform.)

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In the night when I cannot sleep, thoughts crowd into my mind.… Whence and how do they come? I do not know and I have nothing to do with it. Those which please me I keep in my head and hum them.

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Some years before his death, he told a friend that he would gladly give up whatever time he had left, if only he could be allowed to live for three days, five centuries in the future.

When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.