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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The good bits outweigh the bad., 24 Feb. 2012
This review is from: The Information (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. We are seeing some progress in understanding the complexity of biology, and it is much more complex than we have ever imagined. This is the field of bioinformatics and bioinformaticians as far as I know (I have been one for nearly 20 years) do not investigate chain letters, which is the only example he gives in the book. The information in the genome is at many different levels, in sequence, in structure, between the genes in the junk DNA and in the chemistry. It is not 0 and 1 it is an intimate layering of information.

I do not think he was trying to be comprehensive and so the work of Steven Wolfram, Gell-Mann and those at Santa Fe like Andreas Wagner as well as older work from Conrad Waddington to provide a broader view of the arguments about complexity in computational and biological systems.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 26 Nov 2012 19:58:08 GMT
Frank Graham says:
Brilliant and clear review. Thanks.

Posted on 27 Nov 2012 11:05:39 GMT
Nellster says:
Thank you for the review. I am considering buying this book for my teenage son as he is a product/victim/beneficiary of having grown up (he is 18) during the explosion of easily accessible dis/information made possible by the internet. I grew up in an age where libraries were the major source for information and can see the pitfalls as well as benefits of immediate access to information on any subject and in many formats.
I think my son will find this book very interesting, and I may well read it myself! Thanks again for taking the time to write the review. It is obvious that your own knowledge of the role of information in natural processes is extremely specialised, hence the four stars.
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