four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
By: 
James Gleick
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A History, a Theory, a Flood

A-The InformationJournalist James Gleick is the author of several works of popular science, including Chaos: Making a New Science (1987), which was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

The Topic: From the advent of the alphabet to the rise of Wikipedia, Gleick takes readers on a 5,000-year tour of the revolutionary advancements that have altered the way we process and transmit data. Information became a field of study in its own right in 1948 when mathematician and engineer Claude Shannon, "the father of Information Theory," published a groundbreaking paper outlining a mathematical theory of communication that transformed the scientific community and paved the way for the current Age of Information. In fact, argues Gleick, whether it's the biological data encoded within a strand of DNA or the traits of subatomic particles in quantum mechanics, information--"the blood and the fuel, the vital principle"--is the foundation for our entire universe.
Pantheon. 544 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 9780375423727

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] wide-ranging, deeply researched and delightfully engaging history--going back to Homer and Socrates (who distrusted written language as a corruption of pure memory) and extending, in loosely chronological fashion, to our contemporary culture of downloads and data clouds--of how we have come to occupy a world defined in bits and bytes. ... In places, the science can be overwhelming: Even Gleick admits it's ‘hard to summarize' Claude Shannon's 1948 paper ‘Mathematical Theory of Communication,' with its logarithms and formulas, its statistical probabilities." David L. Ulin

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The Information is so ambitious, illuminating and sexily theoretical that it will amount to aspirational reading for many of those who have the mettle to tackle it. ... Imagine luxuriating on a Wi-Fi-equipped desert island with Mr. Gleick's book, a search engine and no distractions. The Information is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand." Janet Maslin

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Beneath these factoids and stirring accounts of discovery and invention, though, lies a deeper story, one that reinforces the degree to which the tools we use to communicate about existence determine how we perceive it. ... Gleick's skill as an explicator of counterintuitive concepts makes the chapters on logic, the stuff even most philosophy majors slept through in class, brim with tension." Marc Mohan

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"No author is better equipped for such a wide-ranging tour than Mr. Gleick. Some writers excel at crafting a historical narrative, others at elucidating esoteric theories, still others at humanizing scientists. Mr. Gleick is a master of all these skills." John Horgan

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Some of the concepts are challenging, but as in previous books like Chaos and Genius, his biography of Richard Feynman, Gleick provides lucid expositions for readers who are up to following the science and suggestive analogies for those who are just reading for the plot. ... Gleick's tendency to neglect the social context casts a deeper shadow over the book's final chapters, where he turns from explicating information as a scientific concept to considering it as an everyday concern, switching roles from science writer to seer." Geoffrey Nunberg

Critical Summary

"A history-changing, paradigm-altering look at the evolution of the human capacity to process data," according to the Oregonian, Gleick's latest book makes even the most unexciting material "brim with tension." The science can be overwhelming at times (quantum teleportation, anyone?), but Gleick provides clear explanations and analogies. For those less scientifically minded, he keeps the narrative moving along with fascinating facts, colorful digressions, and vivid portraits of long-forgotten inventors. Although the New York Times Book Review complained that later chapters on the meaning of information veered from science into the treacherous terrain of philosophy, other reviewers considered his final ruminations insightful and eloquent. Readers may find The Information a dense and demanding read, but this illuminating book is well worth the effort.