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The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood Hardcover – Mar 2011

4 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Hardcover, Mar 2011

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 526 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon Books; First Edition edition (Mar. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375423729
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375423727
  • Product Dimensions: 17.1 x 4.7 x 24.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,862,629 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


‘An audacious book which offers remarkable insight. Gleick takes us, with verve and fizz, on a journey from African drums to computers, liberally sprinkling delightful factoids along the way. This is a book we need to give us a fresh perspective on how we communicate and how that shapes our world.’ The Royal Society Winton Prize Judges

‘Mind-stretching but enlightening … the power and breadth of the ideas involved cannot but make you marvel.’ Daily Mail

‘Magisterial…It is not merely a history of information, but also a theory and a prospectus. To describe it as ambitious is to engage in almost comical understatement.’ Matthew Syed, The Times

‘A deeply impressive and rather beautiful book.’ Philip Ball, Observer

‘The fascinating story of how humans have transmitted knowledge…broad and occasionally brilliant.’ Sunday Times

‘This is a work of rare penetration, a true history of ideas whose witty and determined treatment of its material brings clarity to a complex subject.’ Tim Martin, Daily Telegraph

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

James Gleick was born in New York in 1954. He worked for ten years as an editor and reporter for The New York Times. He is the bestselling author of Chaos, Genius, Faster, What Just Happened and a biography of Isaac Newton.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
I'm not sure the reviews so far are terribly helpful if you want a quick feel for whether to read this book or not. So here goes.

It's basically a bravura sweep through the history of information, told with great panache and lots of anecdote, mixing straight narrative with reflection on wider significance, and attempting to explain quite difficult concepts for the non-specialised reader. Whatever else it may or may not be, I found it a lively and enjoyable read.

The book falls broadly into three sections. The first runs through key early stages in the creation, storage and use of information - the alphabet, printing, the telegraph, telephone, etc. I didn't find much new here but the author did a great job marshalling facts, figures, characters and anecdotes into a lively tale.

The heart of the book grapples with information as a scientific concept, and you will find yourself in the realm of computers, information theory, DNA and quantum mechanics (to name but a few). This isn't natural territory for me, but I was swept along by Gleick's style and even felt I understood some of the underlying mathematical concepts he sought to explain.

The final section is essentially a thought piece on the modern information age, considering the ubiquity of information from the internet and the perils of information overload. Rather like the first section, I didn't feel there was a great deal new here but Gleick's ability to call up literary references, make parallels across the centuries and ask the pertinent questions made it an engaging read. I'm certainly pleased to have made the acquaintance of Vincent of Beauvais, a thirteenth century monk who seems to have arrived 750 years early for the Information Age.

So, a dazzling read certainly, but one also with a great deal of substance. Recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
Gleick's Chaos was one of the books from my teen years and I read Genius his biography of Richard Feynman. So I had high expectations for The Information. In chaos Gleick was at his best when he was telling the history of chaos or the biographical sketches of the participants (Chaos focused on Mitchel Feigenbaum). Again here these are the strongest parts of the book when he is talking about Babbage or Shannon. The stories of Shannon and his seminal paper on information theory is brilliantly explained along with the impact of the advances in communication from telegraphy to telephones and the internet. His explanations of probability and complexity are much clearer than similar arguments made by Murray Gell-Mann in the Quark and the Jaguar. He also does a great job of number theory and the problems of rational, irrational and computable numbers and their information content. It was very nice to see Henry Quastler mentioned as he has unfortunately been ignored because of his untimely death.

The problem comes when towards the end in the chapters when he looks at information in biology, entropy and complexity. Biology as Sydney Brenner and Craig Venter have both said is an information science, but Gleick looks too much at the Ricahrd Dawkin's view of neo-Darwinism and information, which is a gloss on the work of John Maynard-Smith. Another founder of the idea of information in biological sequences, especially from a phylogenetic perspective is Linus Pauling. The real truth in biology is deeper than this. The gene code is not a code for an organism the same way as a blueprint does not build a building without the builders to build it and the technical know-how of the construction.
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Format: Hardcover
Much of the book makes fascinating reading- pseudo codes in African drumming, lucid accounts of concepts such as computable vs non-computable numbers, Byron's daughter and more. There is a large section on the development of alphabets and dictionaries and Glieck observes that the OED in Murray's edition allows 89 distinct meanings for the word 'make'. It seems a pity that he did not look up the word 'information' at the same time, as besides the normal meaning of knowledge, there are a number of specialised meanings, and the word was even usurped by Shannon in his signalling theory to indicate disorder and randomness: if Shannon had chosen a different term for this concept, Glieck's book would have been very different. 'Information' is also used in molecular biology to indicate encoding, compatible with the normal meaning, and there may be further usages in number theory and quantum physics.

Glieck gives a broad discussion of these different usages although it is not always clear that he realises that the meaning depends on context and that he is writing about disparate topics. This could be the reason that the book is interesting in its parts but to me lacks overall coherence.

An editor might have deleted the end section on the future of Google, Wiki and the internet which risks becoming outdated even before the paperback edition of the book is released- indeed, Wikileaks, also due to pass off into history, shows that relevant knowledge can still be held as closely guarded secrets.
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