Skip to main content

Information Theory: a tutorial introduction - James V. Stone ***

Information theory is central to the technology that we use every day - apart from anything else, in the technology that brings you this review (though ironically not in the book being reviewed as it doesn't appear to have an ebook version). As in his Bayes' Rule, James Stone sets out to walk a fine line between a title for the general reader and a textbook. And like that companion title the outcome is mixed, though here the textbook side largely wins.

The opening chapter 'What is information?' walks the line very well. It gradually builds up the basics that will be required to understand information theory and though it would work better if it had a little more context (for example, more about Claude Shannon as a person) to anchor it, the general reader will, with perhaps a few pages that needs re-reading, find it approachable and providing more depth than a popular science title usually would. I like the way that Stone uses variants of a photograph, for instance, to demonstrate what is happening with different mechanisms for compressing data. Unfortunately, though, this is pretty much where that general reader gets off, until we get to chapter 9.

The main bulk of the book, pages 21 to 184, cross that line and plonk solidly into textbook territory - they may cover the topic rather more lightly than a traditional textbook, but they simply don't work to inform without requiring the kind of investment of mind and mathematics that a textbook does - and, with a few brief exceptions, the writing style feels no different from the better textbooks I have from university. At chapter 9, the subject is brought round to information in nature, and there we get enough application and context to make what we learn seem more approachable again, though not to the same level as the equivalent part of Bayes' Rule. It's also a shame that (unless I missed it) there is no mention of Omega, Greg Chaitin's remarkable non-computable number.

So where Bayes' Rule is suited to popular science readers who want to stretch themselves and put in some extra effort, Information Theory can only really be regarded as a readable introductory textbook - it doesn't work in a popular science context. (Why then am I reviewing it? The author kindly provided the title for review in the hope that it would work for popular science readers.) If you are about to take a university course encompassing information theory - or are contemplating doing so - I can, however, heartily recommend this title as an introduction. 


Paperback:  

Buy direct from the author here.
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…