“A Mind At Play” and Claude Shannon’s grave

As the “father of information theory,” Claude Shannon’s contributions to the development of modern digital technology are hard to overstate. That work puts him in the ranks of the Einsteins, Turings, and Feynmans of the world; somehow, though, he never seemed to get the credit and public recognition that those scientists received.

A great new biography of Shannon, “A Mind At Play,” tells the story of his work and may provide an explanation. In contrast to the stereotype of a single-minded scholar who doggedly pursues a particular theory for an entire lifetime, Shannon seemed to hop around to whatever captured his imagination—and in more than a few cases, advanced the state of the art or provided entirely new frameworks with which to consider its thorniest problems. (I was fortunate enough to be sent a copy of this book by its author because I had previously posted about a long New Yorker profile of Shannon commemorating the centennial of his birth.)

That professional pathway meant he probably never had a dull moment, but also that he wasn’t around to lead the fields he revolutionized. Beyond that, it makes it difficult to distill his work down to an equation, or even a few sentences. If you had to, though, you could do worse than his formulation of information as entropy. One fascinating detail from the end of “A Mind At Play” was that that equation appears on his grave stone at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge where he’s buried.

What’s concealed, however, is a message on the reverse: covered by a bush, the open section of the marble on the back of the tombstone holds Shannon’s entropy formula.Shannon’s children had hoped the formula would grace the front of the stone; their mother thought it more modest to engrave it on the back.

And so Claude Shannon’s resting place is marked by a kind of code: a message hidden from view, invisible except to those looking for it.

This struck me as amazing, and I wanted to see how it was rendered. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is difficult to find a picture of the back of a tombstone—even one marking the grave of a person as notable as Claude Shannon. So I turned to Twitter, posting that passage and asking if anybody in or around Cambridge was available to take a picture for me.

Fortunately, it seems many people were as intrigued by that detail as I was, and the tweet was pretty widely circulated. To my surprise and delight, a few groups of people reached out to tell me they were available to go, and a few more just set out for there. I had inadvertently prompted a small flashmob at the grave of a scientist who had passed some 16 years earlier.

The equation is in fact pretty well hidden, but a few folks were able to duck into the bush behind the grave and grab a shot. I love the way it looks, and I was very excited that this new book prompted me and a few nerds around the world to share a moment of appreciation for the great Claude Shannon over a network that his work made possible.