Monday, December 10, 2012

The information: A history, a theory, a flood

The information: A history, a theory, a flood
By James Gleick

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II

With 426 footnotes, a 26-page bibliography, and 426 pages of text material, this book if formidable for anyone, but the kind of information located here, too, is likely to attract only those with intense interest in the subject.  The book is excellent, well-written, and certainly well-researched, but I wonder how many people in the general population would find this book of interest?  It is technical, academic, and specialized.

The reason I picked up this book is a simple one: my interest in language and the development of the word.  For over thirty years I have written college textbooks on the subject of communication, and each one (without fail) contained a chapter on “verbal communication.”  For the current textbook, COMMUNICATING EFFECTIVELY, 10th edition (McGraw-Hill, 2012), it is chapter 3.  These chapters on language always appear near the front of the book and provide basic knowledge and understandings about the whole process of communication.

I was especially impressed with the writer’s writing style and the way he wove together the wealth of research and facts he accumulated during his investigation.  Also noteworthy, is the way he made sense of it all for the reader.  For example, he writes on page 273, “His point was that in the microscopic details, if we watch the motions of individual molecules, their behavior is the same forward and backward in time.  We can run the film backward.  But pan out, watch the box of gas as an ensemble, and statistically the mixing process becomes a one-way street.  We can watch the fluid for all eternity, and it will never divide itself into hot molecules on one side and cool on the other” (p. 273).

Professor Donald Mitchell wrote this in his review of the book at “If you love books about the history of science that tie many ideas, theories, and developments together and aren't a scientist, you'll have a good time with The Information.”  Mitchell thought the book was too elementary for people who are in the field.

Samuel Gompers, in his review of the book at, really focused in one essential element that potential readers must know before pursuing this book: “Be advised however: this book isn't actually a history of information. It's a history of the scientists who deciphered the physical principles of information. And there is a definite difference. The former would be overly technical; the latter...Gleick's end result, is a nice and not too deep biography of the wizards who figured it all out.”  Perhaps, that is what I found so fascinating.  I thought the manner in which Gleick draws together all of the major developments throughout the history of information is spectacular, and makes this book a delightful, informative, and valuable addition to any personal library.

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