Monday, February 28, 2011

Freeman Dyson on James Gleick's The Information

In a review of James Gleick's The Information that appeared in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, leading quantum theorist Freeman Dyson lavishes particular attention on Gleick's chapter on African talking drums. (James Gleick visits the Writers Institute Thursday March 3).

"The story of the drum language illustrates the central dogma of information theory. The central dogma says, 'Meaning is irrelevant.' Information is independent of the meaning that it expresses, and of the language used to express it. Information is an abstract concept, which can be embodied equally well in human speech or in writing or in drumbeats. All that is needed to transfer information from one language to another is a coding system. A coding system may be simple or complicated. If the code is simple, as it is for the drum language with its two tones, a given amount of information requires a longer message. If the code is complicated, as it is for spoken language, the same amount of information can be conveyed in a shorter message."