Isaac Asimov and Information Theory

I have been reading a lot about information theory these last two months. In the course of this reading, the same people keep showing up again and again. Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, Claude Shannon, J. C. R. Lichlider, Marvin Minsky, Norbert Wiener, and John McCarthy to name just a few.

It is the last few that caught my attention. Having read much of what Isaac Asimov wrote over the course of his life–including his 3-volume autobiography, which I’ve read at least 14 times–the last three names were already familiar. Marvin Minsky, Norbert Wiener, and John McCarthy were mentioned a number of times in the second volume of Asimov’s autobiography, In Joy Still Felt.

Asimov knew them in his years living in the Boston area. All three worked in information theory at M.I.T. Asimov, who had quite the ego, said of Minsky that he was one of two people that was smarter than Asimov himself. The other was Carl Sagan. At a party for Asimov’s 50th birthday which both Sagan and Minsky attended, Asimov wrote that “Carl did not fail to point out that I had in the same room with me the two men I conceded were more intelligent than I was.”

Minksy was involved with robotics at the time. Norbert Wiener coined the term “cybernetics.” He also tried to get Asimov to collaborate on a mystery with him. McCarthy worked with Minsky on artificial intelligence.

Thinking back on this, it seemed that Asimov’s interaction with these men was purely social, and a matter of proximity, and knowing the same people. What is remarkable to me is that, knowing these people at the forefront of information theory, I can’t think of a single instance where Asimov wrote about information theory in the way he wrote about other sciences. He had the best and the brightest in the field over to his house, but as far as I can tell, he never showed any intellectual interest in the theory.

Sure, Asimov wrote about robots and the Three Laws, but that is not information theory. Asimov wrote about entropy in physics and chaos theory, but not about the parallels between entropy and information. He wrote popular pieces about using computers, but I could find a single essay in the 399 monthly science columns he wrote for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction from the late 50s until his death in 19922 that went into any detail on information theory. The closet I can come are 2 essays in the 1970s.

The first, “The Age of the Computer” is really more about the impact of computers on society, not information theory. The other, perhaps a little closer, is “The Ancient and the Ultimate” is about how information is contained (book form or digital).

I can’t explain this lack, especially given his camaraderie with Minsky, McCarty and Wiener. Asimov admitted that there were certain fields he simply didn’t understand. Economics was one such example that he gave. Could information theory have been another? After all, he did admit that Minsky was more intelligent than he was. By implication, could that mean he just didn’t get information theory?

It’s too bad, really. I would love to read an F&SF-style essay on information theory written by Asimov.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

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