MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
BLOCK: James Gleick, thanks for joining us.
JAMES GLEICK: It's a pleasure.
SIEGEL: And is it fair to say that information is now the overarching concept for our times that describes how scientists across many disciplines see their work in common?
GLEICK: Yes. It's fair to say that information is, we now know, the vital principle of our world. It's what the world runs on. And we've been talking about the information age for 50 years now. It's more than just a metaphor. Information is really the currency that's most important to us.
SIEGEL: There are many individuals who figure in the story, as you tell it, but one stands out and nearly survives to page 400, and that is Claude Shannon. I want you to tell us who Claude Shannon was and how important he was.
GLEICK: He was the first person to use the word bit as a scientific unit of measuring this funny, abstract thing that, until this point in time, scientists had not thought of as a measurable scientific quantity.
SIEGEL: A bit being kind of an either-or choice, a toggle switch.
GLEICK: That's right, the irreducible quantum of information, yes or no, either-or, one or off, if it's an electrical circuit. And, of course, we all know that that's what our computers are filled with, all that information in the forms of ones and zeros.
SIEGEL: There's a concept that Claude Shannon applied to language and information, the concept of entropy. It used to be that I didn't understand this concept very well as one of thermodynamics and dissipated energy. Now I also don't understand it entirely as a concept of information. I want you to explain: What does entropy to do with information?
GLEICK: Well, no one understands it, and in fact, when Claude Shannon first wrote his paper and made a connection between information and the thermodynamic concept of entropy, a rumor started around Bell Labs that the great atomic physicist John von Neumann had suggested to Shannon: Just use the word entropy. No one will know what you're talking about, and everybody will be scared to doubt you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GLEICK: If you already knew what the message contained, there would be no new information in it. And so, information equals disorder, and disorder equals entropy, and a lot of physicists have been both scratching their heads and making scientific progress ever since.
SIEGEL: But I kept wondering, I mean, doesn't the moon exist in a way that without our perceiving it isn't information, it's just something. It's matter. It's substance. And information only enters the picture when we start observing and thinking about it.
GLEICK: Now, it sounds mystical, and I can't pretend that I fully understand it, either, but it's just one of the many ways in which scientists have discovered a conception of information that helps them solve problems in a whole range of disciplines.
SIEGEL: Well, James Gleick, thank you very much for talking with us.
GLEICK: Robert, it's been my pleasure.
SIEGEL: James Gleick is the author of "The Information: A History, A Theory, a Flood." He spoke with us from Key West, Florida.
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