It’s Claude Shannon’s 104th Birthday. To Celebrate, We Give You 104 Of His Best Quotes And Quips.
By Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, co-authors, A MIND AT PLAY
EDIT: We updated the following post for Claude Shannon’s 104th birthday on April 30th, 2020. In addition to the 103 quotes in the original, we added one from a hand-written letter Dr. Shannon wrote to a professor friend.
“Since retiring from MIT, I have been getting into all kinds of mischief, for instance, trying to become a poet.”
Claude Shannon, who was born 103 years ago today, was one of the most influential scientific geniuses of the 20th century. And, relative to his contributions, he may have been one of the most unheralded. Shannon’s creation of information theory made the modern digital world possible. It’s thanks to Shannon that we have the concept of the “bit” (the basic unit of information), digital compression, and strategies to encode and transmit information flawlessly between any two given points. Shannon’s insights also laid the groundwork for digital computing, showing how logical statements could be translated into the language of 1’s and 0’s.
But beyond his innovative research, Shannon was a tinkerer and inventor whose hobbies ranged from customized unicycles to juggling robots to one of the first chess-playing computers. In writing the first biography of Shannon, we had the pleasure of studying his personal papers, speaking with many of his surviving colleagues and family members, and spending time inside the head of a genius, watching his discoveries take shape over the years.
On the occasion of what would have been Claude Shannon’s 103rd birthday, we want to share some of the fruits of our research with you — 103 Claude Shannon quotes. Here you’ll find everything from Shannon’s secrets of creativity to his opinion of California to his views on juggling. And we hope you’ll share something of our experience as Shannon’s biographers — getting to watch a truly unique mind at work and at play.
(And on the subject of getting to “watch” Shannon: filmmaker Mark Levinson has put the finishing touches on the first-ever, feature-length film about Shannon, called THE BIT PLAYER. You can learn more about it here, and watch the trailer below.)
On how he worked
- I just wondered how things were put together.
- I am very seldom interested in applications. I am more interested in the elegance of a problem. Is it a good problem, an interesting problem?
- I have always pursued my interests without much regard for financial value or value to the world.
- I think you impute a little more practical purpose to my thinking than actually exists.
- I really got a kick out of devising things to construct.
- All my life I’ve been deeply interested in science.
- I have gotten my kicks one way or another through the years.
- I found that I didn’t like teaching as much as I did just plain research.
- I have spent lots of time on totally useless problems.
- If I’ve been trying to prove a mathematical theorem for a week or so and I finally find the solution, I get a big bang out of it.
- My mind wanders around and I will conceive of different things day and night.
- Since our retirement, Betty doesn’t do windows, and I don’t give talks.
- I am a unicycle devotee.
- I am a better poet than scientist.
- I can’t be an advisor. I can’t give advice to anybody. I don’t feel the right to advise.
- I’m not much of an organizer type.
- Since retiring from MIT, I have been getting into all kinds of mischief, for instance, trying to become a poet.
- The general freedom in academic life is, in my view, one of its most important features. The long vacations are exceedingly attractive as is also the general feeling of freedom in hours of work.
- The essential seclusion and isolation of Bell Labs has both advantages and disadvantages. It eliminates a good many time-wasting visitors but at the same time prevents many interesting contacts.
- I’ve been working on three different ideas simultaneously, and strangely enough it seems a more productive method than sticking to one problem.
- I think I’m more visual than symbolic. I try to get a feeling of what’s going on. Equations come later.
- There is an active structure of university life that tends to overcome monotony and boredom. The new classes, the vacations, the various academic exercises add considerable variety to the life here.
- So far lecturing has not become a chore. In fact, I rather enjoy it, but I expect after a month or two, the novelty will wear off.
- I am, of course, pleased with your interest in my paper, and agree that the mathematical argument gets a little heavy. Of course, eliminating this section would be, to me, like saying to Einstein, “Let’s cut out the part about E=MC2 — it gets a little dull.”
- You could say how come it wasn’t published till 1948. Well, I guess laziness would be the answer to that. I have many papers now that I haven’t even published which are much more tardy than that.
On research and problem-solving
- 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.
- Research rather than exposition is the keynote, and our critical thresholds should be raised.
- 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.
- Almost every problem that you come across is befuddled with all kinds of extraneous data of one sort or another; and if you can bring this problem down into the main issues, you can see more clearly what you’re trying to do.
- Suppose that you are given a problem to solve, I don’t care what kind of a problem — a machine to design, or a physical theory to develop, or a mathematical theorem to prove, or something of that kind — probably a very powerful approach to this is to attempt to eliminate everything from the problem except the essentials; that is, cut it down to size.
- It seems to be much easier to make two small jumps than the one big jump in any kind of mental thinking.
- Another approach for a given problem is to try to restate it in just as many different forms as you can. Change the words. Change the viewpoint. Look at it from every possible angle.
- Many proofs in mathematics have been actually found by extremely roundabout processes. A man starts to prove this theorem and he finds that he wanders all over the map. He starts off and prove a good many results which don’t seem to be leading anywhere and then eventually ends up by the back door on the solution of the given problem.
- Then there’s the idea of dissatisfaction. By this I don’t mean a pessimistic dissatisfaction of the world — we don’t like the way things are — I mean a constructive dissatisfaction. The idea could be expressed in the words, This is OK, but I think things could be done better. I think there is a neater way to do this. I think things could be improved a little.
- I think that dissatisfaction in present days is a key driving force in good scientists.
- You have to have some kind of a drive, some kind of a desire to find out the answer, a desire to find out what makes things tick. If you don’t have that, you may have all the training and intelligence in the world, you don’t have questions and you won’t just find answers.
- My feeling is that a good scientist has a great deal of what we can call curiosity. I won’t go any deeper into it than that. He wants to know the answers. He’s just curious how things tick and he wants to know the answers to questions; and if he sees things, he wants to raise questions and he wants to know the answers to those.
On information and information theory
- Information is the resolution of uncertainty.
- We know the past but cannot control it. We control the future but cannot know it.
- The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.
- To most people, the word “information” suggests meaning and reality. To the communication engineer, it is the problem of getting a wave form from one point to another or, more simply, a series of letters, or, simpler still, a series of zeros and ones.
- In chess, there is no chance element apart from the original choice of which player has the first move.
- “Always give check, it may be mate” is tongue-in-cheek advice given to beginners aimed at their predilection for useless checks. “Always investigate a check, it may lead to mate” is sound advice for any player.
On history and science
- The important people and events of history are the thinkers and innovators — the Darwins, Newtons, and Beethovens whose work continues to grow in influence in a positive fashion.
- Seldom do more than a few of nature’s secrets give way at one time.
- It’s impossible to overestimate the future.
- This century is the equal in scientific progress of all the centuries that went before it, and I don’t see any slowing down.
- There is a vast, explored sea of nature just waiting for things to be discovered in it, and the science and technology needed are progressing at an exponential rate. You see, it all feeds back into itself. Someone discovers a new principle or a new theory and it’s not only new knowledge but a new instrument for seeking more knowledge.
- Chemistry has always seemed a little dull to me — too many isolated facts and too few general principles for my taste.
- While the arts and literature may be traced back for millenia, most of science goes back but a few centuries.
- The fundamental discoveries of such scientists are wonderful achievements in themselves, but would not affect the life of the common man without the intermediate efforts of engineers and inventors―people like Edison, Bell and Marconi.
- I think Turing had a great mind, a very great mind.
- Most of the great mathematicians have done their finest work, you know, in their twenties and thirties and have done much less when they get older.
- I was very impressed when I met Einstein. I recall I used to walk to the Institute for Advanced Study there in the morning and he usually would walk along in sort of bedroom slippers and had old clothes hanging on and he looked like a transient almost, I’d say, and I’d go along in my car and I’d wave at him and he’d wave back.
- Boolean algebra — I always loved that word.
- You know, there’s no Nobel in mathematics, although I think there should be.
- I must say the smartest people I have ever known have been mathematicians, pure mathematicians like Von Neuman who I’m sure is the smartest person I’ve ever met. Then you get the physicists who are not as rigorous, you know, in their mathematics, but they have an insight into the world, they certainly know what’s going on in a wonderful way that appeals to me very much. So they’ve got something too.
- You can work out all the theories you like but the real world is more complex than your theories
- And it’s also the creative thing in engineering. It’s very synthetic. You’re putting something together, something new. You’re not just explaining something.
- One day I was chatting with William Shockley and noticed on his desk a small plastic object with three wires extending from it. I asked Shockley what it was and he said “It’s an amplifying device like a vacuum tube, but using solid state physics.” This was my first glimpse of a transistor, quite possibly the greatest invention of the 20th century.
- I think the history of science has shown that valuable consequences often proliferate from simple curiosity.
- A very small percentage of the population produces the greatest proportion of the important ideas.
- There are some people if you shoot one idea into the brain, you will get a half an idea out. There are other people who are beyond this point at which they produce two ideas for each idea sent in.
- Revolutionary ideas are, in fact, publishable, and if they prove valid or soon accepted by the scientific community, for example, relativity theory, the particle wave duality of quantum mechanics, evolutionary theory, etc. particularly in the latter case one sees how much more open the scientific public is to new ideas than the public at large.
- Probably the most important is work on the transistor, the small germanium device which competes with the vacuum tube. I consider it very likely the most important invention of the last 50 years. As soon as the final manufacturing “bugs” are out and large-scale production starts, electronic devices that we can only dream about today will become realities.
- Scientific American should have a poetry column.
- I see no limit to the capabilities of machines.
- I am rooting for the machines! I have always been on the machines’ side.
- I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans. And I am rooting for the machines.
- It is difficult to predict the future, but it is my feeling that by 2001 AD we will have machines which can walk as well, see as well, and think as well as we do.
- I think man is a machine. I think man is a machine. No, I am not joking, I think man is a machine of a very complex sort, different from a computer, i.e., different in organization. But it could be easily reproduced — it has about 10 billion nerve cells, i.e., 1010 neurons. And if you model each one of these with electronic equipment it will act like a human brain.
- You can make a thing that is smarter than yourself. Smartness in this game is made partly of time and speed. I can build something which can operate much faster than my neurons.
- I’d say one of the most interesting challenges right now for computing people and so on is they developed computers that do the highest level of transformation of information that the brain does. Not just solving mathematical problems, but thinking out new solutions and figuring out what’s going on.
- If you are talking about the machines taking over, I’m not really worried about that. I think so long as we build them they won’t take over.
- I have great hopes in this direction for machines that will rival or even surpass the human brain.
- It’s not going to be the biological process of evolution anymore, it’s going to be the inventive process whereby we invent machines which are smarter than we are and so we’re no longer useful, not only smarter but they last longer and have replaceable parts and they’re so much better. There are so many of these things about the human system, it’s just terrible. The only thing surgeons can do to help you basically is to cut something out of you. They don’t cut it out and put something better in, or a new part in. Usually, they don’t even quite know what to cut out. They cut out a huge section hoping it will work.
- Many of us have either dreamed about, or had nightmares of, the possibilities artificial intelligence — of machines that were smarter than anyone in the human race. This may reach a fairly harmless fruition with chess-playing machines far stronger than the best human players. It would give a chance to observe the effect on humans before such machines, with even broader abilities, might pose a threat to the human ego.
- My fondest dream is to someday build a machine that really thinks, learns, communicates with humans and manipulate its environment in a fairly sophisticated way.
- The idea of a machine thinking is by no means repugnant to all of us. In fact, I find the converse idea, that the human brain may itself be a machine which could be possibly duplicated functionally with inanimate objects, quite attractive. Until clearly disproved, this hypothesis concerning the brain seems the natural scientific one in line with the principle of parsimony, etc., rather than hypothecating intangible and unreachable “vital forces,” “souls” and the like.
- The subject of chess-playing machines seems to be particularly prone to sensationalism and exaggerated reporting in the newspapers, 99% of what appears about them is so completely unrelated to the actual facts.
- It is very difficult to estimate how well a computer can be made to play with ideal programming. I tend to agree that it would be very difficult to reach the caliber of world champions or even most chess masters but I do not regard this as unthinkable. The machines do have certain very strong advantages of accuracy, speed, etc., and our present techniques of programming are bound to improve enormously in the future.
- You have to think of problems like this when machines are running around loose in the real world. A machine on the moon must protect itself — not fall down a hole, without your having to tell it not to. It’s the same problem we are going to have someday with furniture when there are robot housekeepers running around the house picking up things.
- We had dreams. Turing and I used to talk about the possibility of simulating entirely the human brain, could we really get a computer which would be the equivalent of the human brain or even a lot better? And it seemed easier then than it does now maybe.
On stocks and investing
- The most important thing in my view is to find companies that have good growth of earnings per year, which sounds so simple. And if you put most of your money into that, but distribute it around, you know. Another part of that is to find the ones that the earnings growth is going to continue and that’s some sort of a vision into the future of what will be demanded by the public, what they will buy.
- My general feeling is that it is easier to choose companies which are going to succeed, than to predict short term variations, things which last only weeks or months, which they worry about on Wall Street Week. There is a lot more randomness there and things happen which you cannot predict, which cause people to sell or buy a lot of stock.
- A lot of people look at the stock price, when they should be looking at the basic company and its earnings.
- I make my money on the stock market. I don’t make it by proving theorems.
- I even did some work on the theory of stocks and the stock market, which is among other papers that I have not published. Everybody wants to know what’s in them!
- And I juggle myself as a pastime. No great expert at it or anything. I found the dynamics and kinematics of it, if you like, the conditions and control change with gravity or change with your speed of response with one thing or another were kind of interesting.
- Jugglers are surely the most vulnerable of all entertainers.
- It all started when Betty brought home a little four-inch clown, doing a five ball shower, from the cake decorating store ($1.98). I was both amused and bemused — amused as a long-time amateur juggler who even as a boy wished to run away and join the circus, but bemused by the unlikely shower pattern and the plastic connections between the balls.
- The greatest numbers jugglers of all time cannot sustain their record patterns for more than a few minutes, but my little clowns juggle all night and never drop a prop!
On praise and criticism
- That’s his opinion and it may be a good one.
- I cannot understand how he would feel so viciously about a difference of opinion.
- I don’t think I was ever motivated by the notion of winning prizes, although I have a couple of dozen of them in the other room. I was more motivated by curiosity.
- I’ve got enough kudos for my slim appetite anyway.
- After I had found the answers, it was always painful to write them up or to publish them (which is how you get the acclaim).
- You know where my interests are, and that’s enough.
On traveling — the world, and the universe
- When we began to plan our journey, Betty brought home four books relating to the culture and customs of Japan. I am not sure how reliable these were, since they were all written by Americans.
- (Shannon speaking to someone destined for California): You are going to God’s country. All you need is a great white apron, a chef ’s hat, and a barbecue, and you’ll be all set.
- An American driving in England is confronted with a wild and dangerous world
- The whole driving situation was not particularly improved by the narrowness of English streets and the high speed of English drivers. Nor was our inner security increased by the predilection of the English for building stone walls immediately adjacent to the roads.
- I also have been interested in the possibility of life on other planets, which it seems to me is very likely true. Not on our planets on our solar system but in the galaxy which we live with so many billions of suns, many of which undoubtedly have planetary systems. It seems to me almost certainly, there are many many civilizations out there, many of them far more advanced than we are.
- Mrs. Shannon and I would like to thank you again for the very pleasant time we spent in Holland. We both enjoy tremendously the automobile rides across the dykes, and I am still telling my friends about the chess club where they drink wine and make speeches but don’t play chess.