Freeman Dyson reviews Gleick's book on information theory

"How We Know" is Freeman Dyson's essay on information theory in next month's New York Review of Books, inspired by James Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. Dyson's thoughts on Claude Shannon, Wikipedia, and twenty-first century science are illuminating, and man, does it ever leave me wanting to read the book -- Gleick being one of the greatest science writers of all time, and information theory being one of the subjects that interests me the most.
Jimmy Wales hoped when he started Wikipedia that the combination of enthusiastic volunteer writers with open source information technology would cause a revolution in human access to knowledge. The rate of growth of Wikipedia exceeded his wildest dreams. Within ten years it has become the biggest storehouse of information on the planet and the noisiest battleground of conflicting opinions. It illustrates Shannon's law of reliable communication. Shannon's law says that accurate transmission of information is possible in a communication system with a high level of noise. Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works.

The information flood has also brought enormous benefits to science. The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.

How We Know (via MeFi)

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  1. I’m looking forward to this; Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science is still one of my all-time favorite non-fiction works. If this book is half as good it will be quite the read.

  2. Quote: “The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.”

    It is interesting to me how the truth is buried in information such that some people think some mysteries of life are not understood, and continue thinking they are not yet understood, while others already have that information.

    For example, to some, the origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. Information is the origin of life, and is it’s substance, and it is the substance of human consciousness, and all other things which exist. They do not yet understand how the brain is an interface for the spirit to control the body, and that the electrical discharges in the brain are just random flux, which is to say, that place where spirit which is information can affect matter, and thus, control the physical human body which humans appear to be in.

    One of the problems we have as scientists is that we often cling religiously to beliefs that some things are not yet understood, while ignoring the research of those who have arrived at understanding, because it conflicts with the notion some things remain a mystery.

    Everything is made of information, and there is nothing but information in the truth.

    The single united conscious ocean of living information that all things are made of is what most people refer to when they say “God”, though these qualities of IT may remain a mystery to them.

    1. “But this speculation is of the same nature as those other people make—’I like it,’ ‘I don’t like it’—and it is not good to be prejudiced about these things” Richard Feynman

    2. “They do not yet understand how the brain is an interface for the spirit to control the body”

      Information stuff does not exist. Neither does spirit stuff. Nor are we disembodied minds inhabiting material bodies. Nor is it the task of cognitive science to discover how our spirit “interfaces” with our material body.

      “Everything is made of information” — No, actually, it isn’t. All there is are particles moving in lines of force, nothing else.

      “The single united conscious ocean of living information that all things are made of is what most people refer to when they say “God””

      No, that’s what New Agers mean by god. What most people mean is a transcendental father figure who either rewards or punishes.

      Gleick – “In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”

      The word science simply means knowledge and alternatively the method by which we obtain that knowledge. So yes, science really does refer to a body of well established truths and also, no, science is not the mere exploration of mysteries. It is the eventual explanation *of* those mysteries and their reduction to common place knowledge.

      “Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain.”

      False.

      “Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate.”

      False.

      “The origin of life is a total mystery”

      False.

      “so is the existence of human consciousness”

      False.

      “We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.”

      Clear idea? I’ll grant that but it is also clear by now that the electrical discharges in our brains just *are* our thoughts, feelings and desires.

      1. “Information stuff does not exist.”

        Actually, scientifically speaking, it kind of does. Information is physical. You cannot erase information without increasing the entropy of a system. See Maxwell’s Demon paradox and Rolf Landauer’s solution to it. (although there it has recently been suggested that information can be erased without entropy increase http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-01-scientists-erase-energy.html)

    3. “…the brain is an interface for the spirit to control the body…”

      That’s what you say.

  3. When referring to Wikipedia I do think Dyson misses the fact that information theory has nothing to do with the meaning or importance of what’s being communicated – just with the correct transmission of the sequence of symbols forming the data. Wikipedia’s success is as the result things at (at least) a level above Shannon’s information theory. (It really was misleadingly named, but we’re stuck with it now :-)

  4. Let’s not forget that Freeman Dyson is a Templeton prize winner. “Total mysteries” of consciousness and life are false but convenient. If you state it enough, people will believe you. Especially if worked with Einstein and Nobel Prize are part of your CV.

  5. “The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.”
    No, too far. While it’s true that many school children were taught some facts as unquestionable, and a subset thereof were found to be somewhat false, to spew such nonsense that abiogenesis is a total mystery? Overboard. There are theories about how it happened. None of them are absolutely true, but only some of them are absolutely false. Same with gravity, atoms, and pizza. We have theories explaining the phenomena, and they work to some extent, but not perfectly. At some point the explanations break down. I mean, black holes and chicken alfredo?

    We understand some things better then others, but only a nutball fool would doubt the sun will rise tomorrow, evolution is happening, the world is roundish, the world is getting warmer, the continents move, or vaccines are safe.

    This sort of extrapolation is insulting. So fuck off with your anti-science.

    Also, the spirit exists in the mind which exists in the brain which exists in the body. Right next to the id and the ego. Duh.

  6. With all due respect for your commercial need to play nice with fellow writers, Cory, I’m just a tad appalled at the assertion that Mr. Gleick is “one of the greatest science writers of all time.” Of course, that might simply be your subtle way of suggesting that we don’t have any good science writers.

    Mr. Gleick is responsible for the 1987 abomination “Chaos,” in which treated an incredibly fascinating and important topic with superficiality bordering on contempt. Okay, maybe that was his editor. Maybe all of the important connecting principles in this book were ripped out because they were too cerebral or might require a little math. But as Einstein said, “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Gleick, his editor, or both crossed that line in “Chaos,” and I have never forgiven them for it.

  7. please explain how you felt chaos was superficial – i found it a fascinating read into the modern discovery of the theory, intertwined with their relation to fractals, and – my favorite part – the character profiles of the people involved – seriously, the opening bit on feigenbaum is fantastic.

    but if you didn’t care for that book for personal reasons, try ‘genius’, which is my favorite of his books. fwiw, i’m not a huge fan of ‘faster’, though.

  8. Freeman Dyson (the reviewer, not the author) is, like his colleague Feynman, an approachable polyglot. When I talked to him after a lecture, he gave me the whole next afternoon. We talked about his history, my plans (I was in my last year of high school), his kids and their university experiences. He even sent me a few letters afterward. Bet he had a loooooong mailing list.

    His lectures explain scientific concepts in a simple way, with humour, that is overall a benefit to science. More accurate than the similar function at the time of OMNI magazine, a place now held for what little it still exists, by WIRED. Science needs the public’s respect if not its understanding, or the funding and the use goes away.

    If the teabaggers had been around at the beginning of the internet, it would have been dismantled by force.

  9. > Mr. Gleick is responsible for the 1987 abomination “Chaos”

    He also wrote “Faster”, published in around 2000, which was extremely superficial and had no coherent thesis.

  10. > Let’s not forget that Freeman Dyson is a Templeton prize winner.
    > … If you state it enough, people will believe you. Especially
    > if worked with Einstein and Nobel Prize are part of your CV.

    Freeman Dyson hasn’t won a Nobel Prize. Both the Lorentz and Max Planck medals, and the Enrico Fermi Award, but not a Nobel.

    Dyson actually “prefers the infamy of never having won” – see http://bigthink.com/ideas/19301

  11. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all.

    Sigh… “dark matter” is a very recent, rather poorly supported theory that attempts to explain weaknesses in our current understanding of cosmology by postulating magical stuff that we can’t actually ever see.

    Very much like postulating a big bearded man in the sky who throws thunderbolts because you haven’t yet got any understanding of electrical discharges – it might be right, but it’s based on wild guesswork within a frame of incomplete knowledge.

    So it’s both funny and ironic that a disquisition on presenting theory as fact should offhandedly present a somewhat weak theory as solid fact.

    Maybe “dark matter” exists. And maybe stinkbugs might like to dance the watusi in my undershorts, but you gotta draw the line somewhere!

    http://www.google.com/search?q=Modified+Newtonian+Dynamics

    1. Dark matter is stuff we can’t see with visible light, but if we couldn’t detect it we wouldn’t think it is there. You might as well call pulsars hypothetical entities meant to cover up our gaps in understanding radio waves.

  12. I wouldn’t trust Freeman Dyson to get anything right outside his narrow field of specialism. After all, here’s a man who seems to be happy making confident assertions that global warming isn’t happening, while at the same time admitting he knows very little about it and has very little interest in learning more:
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2011/02/the-starship-vs-spaceship-earth/

    Seems like a classic case of the physicist portrayed in xkcd:
    http://xkcd.com/793/

    1. I like that XKCD comic, reminds me of a joke:

      A farmer sends a letter to the local university agricultural extension asking for some help with cows and milk production.

      The ag department is a little overbooked at the time so the farmer’s request gets passed off to a theoretical physicist.

      The farmer never gets a response and forgets about it until nine months later he gets a 60-page report from the university. He opens it up and it begins “consider a spherical cow in a vacuum…”

  13. Anon #7

    > the spirit exists in the mind which exists in the brain which exists in the body

    So the brain is not a part of the body, it just kinda lives there?

  14. “Actually, scientifically speaking, it kind of does. Information is physical. You cannot erase information without increasing the entropy of a system.”

    I find that talking about entropy in terms of known information vs. unknown information is really confusing, but you seem to know your stuff. :)

    I find that talking about entropy in terms of repetitive data vs. distinct data is better.

    Here is a string of three Roman symbols with 0 (e.g., minimal) entropy:
    AAA

    Here is a string of three Roman symbols with -1/3 ln(1/3) ~ 0.366 (e.g., maximal) entropy:
    ABC

    Each of these preceding strings of symbols is loosely the same thing as the microstates of a system over time. The first string has only one distinct microstate (e.g., A), where the second string has three distinct microstates (e.g., A, B, C). Similarly, a roughly static 100kg block of ice over time will exist in a very small number of states, whereas a roughly static 100kg black hole over time will exist in much much much larger number of states.

    – Shawn Halayka

  15. “Sigh… ‘dark matter’ is a very recent, rather poorly supported theory that attempts to explain weaknesses in our current understanding of cosmology by postulating magical stuff that we can’t actually ever see.”

    Fritz Zwicky has been dead for over 35 years! Dark matter is not a recent concept. In fact, Zwicky died almost 10 years before Milgrom decided to arbitrarily add a constant to Newton’s equation.

    There are a few observations that cast doubt on MOND, like how it fails for anything bigger than a galaxy. In any case, let’s not forget that the Lambda-CDM model is called the “standard” model for good reasons.

    – Shawn Halayka

  16. Sorry, my previous comment should have said:

    Here is a string of three Roman symbols with 3 * (-1/3 ln(1/3)) = ln 3 ~ 1.099 (e.g., maximal) entropy:
    ABC

  17. “The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”

    Loved this. Firmly established truths discourages people to go against it, or to believe it. I mean, if something is firmly established, which is the interest of a curious to do something with that truth?. On the other hand, everybody loves mysteries, everybody gets curious in front of a mystery. Mystery is what fuels science, what makes you go on step further trying to see in the dark. Shannon and Dyson rules!.

  18. I found Dyson’s article fascinating. However, there is one part of it I don’t understand, which is the part about astronomy and the cooking rule. Isn’t it believed that the universe is expanding at a faster and faster rate, so that eventually every star will be isolated? Then when a star burns all of its fuel (let’s consider a low-mass star), it would collapse into a brown dwarf which will eventually cool to absolute zero. If it’s a higher mass star, it will explode and form multiple stars which will eventually suffer the brown dwarf fate. So how is it that things are getting hotter?

  19. @double_tilly
    >> the spirit exists in the mind which exists in the brain which exists in the body
    >So the brain is not a part of the body, it just kinda lives there?
    I see what you’re getting at, but that’s kind of a stretch.

    But if you want better verbage, here you go:
    The spirit is a construct of the mind, which is a configuration of your brain, which is a subset of your your head, which is a section of your body.

    Happy?

    1. Yes, thank you.

      But don’t forget that the nervous system extends through the torso, limbs, etc.

      I found the book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought by Lakoff and Johnson a worthwhile work on the topic of brain, mind, body, metaphor, culture, etc. I see Lakoff did something similar with a book the origins of mathematics, which may appeal to the hard scientist.

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