James Gleick


American Author, Historian of Science Chronicling the Cultural Impact of Modern Technology, best known books are 'Chaos: Making a New Science' and 'The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood'

Author Quotes

We have a habit of turning to scientists when we want factual answers and artists when we want entertainment, but where are the facts about the nature of the self? Neurologists peering at PET scans and fMRIs know they aren't seeing the soul in there.

Winfree came from a family in which no one had gone to college. He got started, he would say, by not having proper education. His father, rising from the bottom of the life insurance business to the level of vice president, moved family almost yearly up and down the East Coast, and Winfree attended than a dozen schools before finishing high school. He developed a feeling that the interesting things in the world had to do with biology and mathematics and a companion feeling that no standard combination of the two subjects did justice to what was interesting. So he decided not to take a standard approach. He took a five-year course in engineering physics at Cornell University, learning applied mathematics and a full range of hands-on laboratory styles. Prepared to be hired into military-industrial complex, he got a doctorate in biology, striving to combine experiment with theory in new ways.

We have met the Devil of Information Overload and his impish underlings, the computer virus, the busy signal, the dead link, and the PowerPoint presentation.

With the advent of computing, human invention crossed a threshold into a world different from everything that came before. The computer is the universal machine almost by definition, machine-of-all-trades, capable of accomplishing or simulating just about any task that can be logically defined.

We say that time passes, time goes by, and time flows. Those are metaphors. We also think of time as a medium in which we exist.

With words we begin to leave traces behind us like breadcrumbs: memories in symbols for others to follow. Ants deploy their pheromones, trails of chemical information; Theseus unwound Ariadne's thread. Now people leave paper trails.

We will have learned to understand and express all of physics in the language of information.

Writing comes into being to retain information across time and across space. Before writing, communication is evanescent and local; sounds carry a few yards and fade to oblivion. The evanescence of the spoken word went without saying. So fleeting was speech that the rare phenomenon of the echo, a sound heard once and then again, seemed a sort of magic.

When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.

You can't waste time and you can't save time; you can only choose what you do at any given moment.

When Isaac Newton embarked on his great program, he encountered a fundamental lack of definition where it was most needed. He began with a semantic sleight of hand: I do not define time, space, place, and motion, as being well known to all, he wrote deceptively. Defining these words was his very purpose. There were no agreed standards for weights and measures. Weight and measure were themselves vague terms. Latin seemed more reliable than English, precisely because it was less worn by everyday use, but the Romans had not possessed the necessary words either.

You don?t see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it.

When McLuhan announced that the medium was the message, he was being arch. The medium is both opposite to, and entwined with, the message.

You know, entropy is associated thermodynamically, in systems involving heat, with disorder. And in an analogous way, information is associated with disorder, which seems paradoxical. But when you think about it, a bit of information is a surprise. If you already knew what the message contained, there would be no new information in it.

When people say that the Internet is going to make us all geniuses, that was said about the telegraph. On the other hand, when they say the Internet is going to make us stupid, that also was said about the telegraph.

When people speak of the borderline between genius and madness, why is it so evident what they mean?

treating messages as discrete had application not just for traditional communication but for a new and rather esoteric subfield, the theory of computing machines.

When the genetic code was solved, in the early 1960s, it turned out to be full of redundancy. Much of the mapping from nucleotides to amino acids seemed arbitrary?not as neatly patterned as any of Gamow?s proposals. Some amino acids correspond to just one codon, others to two, four, or six. Particles called ribosomes ratchet along the RNA strand and translate it, three bases at a time. Some codons are redundant; some actually serve as start signals and stop signals. The redundancy serves exactly the purpose that an information theorist would expect. It provides tolerance for errors. Noise affects biological messages like any other. Errors in DNA?misprints?are mutations.

Turing exclaiming once, No, I?m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I?m after is just a mundane brain, something like the president of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company.

When the Lilliputians first saw Gulliver's watch, that "wonderful kind of engine... a globe, half silver and half of some transparent metal," they identified it immediately as the god he worshiped. After all, "he seldom did anything without consulting it: he called it his oracle, and said it pointed out the time for every action in his life." To Jonathan Swift in 1726 that was worth a bit of satire. Modernity was under way. We're all Gullivers now. Or are we Yahoos?

Vengeful conquerors burn books as if the enemy's souls reside there, too.

Where, then, is any particular gene?say, the gene for long legs in humans? This is a little like asking where is Beethoven?s Piano Sonata in E minor. Is it in the original handwritten score? The printed sheet music? Any one performance?or perhaps the sum of all performances, historical and potential, real and imagined? The quavers and crotchets inked on paper are not the music. Music is not a series of pressure waves sounding through the air; nor grooves etched in vinyl or pits burned in CDs; nor even the neuronal symphonies stirred up in the brain of the listener. The music is the information. Likewise, the base pairs of DNA are not genes. They encode genes. Genes themselves are made of bits.

We all behave like Maxwell?s demon. Organisms organize. In everyday experience lies the reason sober physicists across two centuries kept this cartoon fantasy alive. We sort the mail, build sand castles, solve jigsaw puzzles, separate wheat from chaff, rearrange chess pieces, collect stamps, alphabetize books, create symmetry, compose sonnets and sonatas, and put our rooms in order, and all this we do requires no great energy, as long as we can apply intelligence. We propagate structure (not just we humans but we who are alive). We disturb the tendency toward equilibrium. It would be absurd to attempt a thermodynamic accounting for such processes, but it is not absurd to say we are reducing entropy, piece by piece. Bit by bit. The original demon, discerning one molecules at a time, distinguishing fast from slow, and operating his little gateway, is sometimes described as super-intelligent, but compared to a real organism it is an idiot savant. Not only do living things lessen the disorder in their environments; they are in themselves, their skeletons and their flesh, vesicles and membranes, shells and carapaces, leaves and blossoms, circulatory systems and metabolic pathways - miracles of pattern and structure. It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in the universe.

Wikipedia features a popular article called Errors in the Encyclopaedia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia. This article is, of course, always in flux. All Wikipedia is. At any moment the reader is catching a version of truth on the wing.

We are swimming upstream against a great torrent of disorganization, which tends to reduce everything to the heat death of equilibrium and sameness.? This heat death in physics has a counterpart in the ethics of Kierkegaard, who pointed out that we live in a chaotic moral universe. In this, our main obligation is to establish arbitrary enclaves of order and system.? Like the Red Queen, we cannot stay where we are without running as fast as we can.

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American Author, Historian of Science Chronicling the Cultural Impact of Modern Technology, best known books are 'Chaos: Making a New Science' and 'The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood'