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The Science of Information: From Language to Black Holes

The Science of Information: From Language to Black Holes

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The Science of Information: From Language to Black Holes

Course No. 1301
Professor Benjamin Schumacher, Ph.D.
Kenyon College
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Course No. 1301
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What Will You Learn?

  • Explore what information is, how it is measured, and how it led to the concept of the bit - the basic unit of information.
  • Learn how to design a simple electronic circuit that performs basic mathematical calculations.
  • Investigate the history of cryptography starting with the simple cipher used by Julius Caesar.
  • Learn how a feature of the quantum world called entanglement is the key to an unbreakable code
  • Unravel the super-secure Enigma code system used by the Germans during World War II.

Course Overview

The science of information is the most influential, yet perhaps least appreciated field in science today. Never before in history have we been able to acquire, record, communicate, and use information in so many different forms. Never before have we had access to such vast quantities of data of every kind. This revolution goes far beyond the limitless content that fills our lives, because information also underlies our understanding of ourselves, the natural world, and the universe. It is the key that unites fields as different as linguistics, cryptography, neuroscience, genetics, economics, and quantum mechanics. And the fact that information bears no necessary connection to meaning makes it a profound puzzle that people with a passion for philosophy have pondered for centuries.

Little wonder that an entirely new science has arisen that is devoted to deepening our understanding of information and our ability to use it. Called information theory, this field has been responsible for path-breaking insights such as the following:

  • What is information? In 1948, mathematician Claude Shannon boldly captured the essence of information with a definition that doesn’t invoke abstract concepts such as meaning or knowledge. In Shannon’s revolutionary view, information is simply the ability to distinguish reliably among possible alternatives.

  • The bit: Atomic theory has the atom. Information theory has the bit: the basic unit of information. Proposed by Shannon’s colleague at Bell Labs, John Tukey, bit stands for “binary digit”—0 or 1 in binary notation, which can be implemented with a simple on/off switch. Everything from books to black holes can be measured in bits.

  • Redundancy: Redundancy in information may seem like mere inefficiency, but it is a crucial feature of information of all types, including languages and DNA, since it provides built-in error correction for mistakes and noise. Redundancy is also the key to breaking secret codes.

Building on these and other fundamental principles, information theory spawned the digital revolution of today, just as the discoveries of Galileo and Newton laid the foundation for the scientific revolution four centuries ago. Technologies for computing, telecommunication, and encryption are now common, and it’s easy to forget that these powerful technologies and techniques had their own Galileos and Newtons.

The Science of Information: From Language to Black Holes covers the exciting concepts, history, and applications of information theory in 24 challenging and eye-opening half-hour lectures taught by Professor Benjamin Schumacher of Kenyon College. A prominent physicist and award-winning educator at one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges, Professor Schumacher is also a pioneer in the field of quantum information, which is the latest exciting development in this dynamic scientific field.

Professor Schumacher introduces the essential mathematical ideas that govern the subject—concepts that can be understood by anyone with a background in high school math. But it is not necessary to follow the equations to appreciate the remarkable story that Dr. Schumacher tells.

A New View of Reality

Clearly, information has been around a long time. In human terms, language, writing, art, music, and mathematics are perfect examples; so are Morse code, Mendelian genetics, and radio signals—all originating before 1900. But a series of conceptual breakthroughs in the 20th century united what seemed like unrelated phenomena and led to a dramatic new way of looking at reality. The Science of Information takes you on this stimulating intellectual journey, in which some of the key figures include:

  • Claude Shannon: Shannon plays a key role throughout the course as the dominant figure in the early decades of information theory, making major contributions in computer science, cryptography, genetics, and other areas. His crucial 1948 paper was the “shot heard” round the world” for the information revolution.

  • Alan Turing: The genius behind the decryption of the Nazi Enigma code during World War II, Turing invented the principle of the modern digital computer, and he showed the inherent limitation of all computers by showing that the notorious “halting problem” was fundamentally unsolvable.

  • John A. Wheeler: One of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, Wheeler had a passion for the most fundamental questions of science, which led him to conceive the famous slogan, “It from bit,” meaning that all of physical reality emerges from information. He was also Professor Schumacher’s mentor.

In addition, you study the contributions of other pioneers, such as John Kelly, who used information theory to devise an influential strategy for betting and investing; David Huffman, who blazed the trail in data compression, now used in formats such as JPEG and MP3; and Gregory Chaitin, who pursued computer algorithms for information theory, hypothesizing a celebrated yet uncomputable number called Omega. You also explore the pivotal contributions of pre-20th-century thinkers including Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Samuel F. B. Morse, and Joseph Fourier.

The Laws of Information at Work

With lucid explanations and imaginative graphics, Professor Schumacher shows you the world through an extraordinary set of lenses. “If we wear our information-colored glasses,” he says, “we will see the laws of information at work all around us, in a hundred different ways.” The course illustrates this with examples such as:

  • Money: Today most money exists as electronic account data. But even in ancient times, money was a record-keeping device—in other words, information. Precious metal coins had a cryptographic function: to make it hard to counterfeit messages of economic agreement and obligation.

  • Privacy: The search for guaranteed privacy has only one refuge—the quantum realm. Professor Schumacher explains how the only perfectly secure communications take place between pairs of entangled quantum particles called qubits (a term he coined). Such systems are now in use.

  • Games: The parlor game 20 Questions obviously involves the exchange of information. But why is the number of questions 20? Why not 10 or 30? The answer has to do with the connection between entropy and information—in this case, the total number of possible solutions to the game.

Dr. Schumacher also shows you how information theory can provide answers to profound scientific questions. What is the information content of the genome? The human brain? A black hole? The universe? Time and again, the concepts and laws of information reveal breathtaking insights into the workings of nature, even as they lay the foundation of astounding new technologies.

One final example: 12 billion miles from Earth, a spacecraft built with 1970s technology is racing through interstellar space, never to return. From that distance, the sun is a very bright star and Earth is a pale blue dot. Voyager 1’s radio transmitter is about as strong as a cell phone tower on Earth, which typically can’t reach phones more than a few miles away. Yet we continue, to this day, to receive data from Voyager. How is that possible? The Science of Information explains this amazing feat, along with so much more.

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24 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
Year Released: 2015
  • 1
    The Transformability of Information
    What is information? Explore the surprising answer of American mathematician Claude Shannon, who concluded that information is the ability to distinguish reliably among possible alternatives. Consider why this idea was so revolutionary, and see how it led to the concept of the bit - the basic unit of information. x
  • 2
    Computation and Logic Gates
    Accompany the young Claude Shannon to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where in 1937 he submitted a master's thesis proving that Boolean algebra could be used to simplify the unwieldy analog computing devices of the day. Drawing on Shannon's ideas, learn how to design a simple electronic circuit that performs basic mathematical calculations. x
  • 3
    Measuring Information
    How is information measured and how is it encoded most efficiently? Get acquainted with a subtle but powerful quantity that is vital to the science of information: entropy. Measuring information in terms of entropy sheds light on everything from password security to efficient binary codes to how to design a good guessing game. x
  • 4
    Entropy and the Average Surprise
    Intuition says we measure information by looking at the length of a message. But Shannon's information theory starts with something more fundamental: how surprising is the message? Through illuminating examples, discover that entropy provides a measure of the average surprise. x
  • 5
    Data Compression and Prefix-Free Codes
    Probe the link between entropy and coding. In the process, encounter Shannon's first fundamental theorem, which specifies how far information can be squeezed in a binary code, serving as the basis for data compression. See how this works with a text such as Conan Doyle's The Return of Sherlock Holmes. x
  • 6
    Encoding Images and Sounds
    Learn how some data can be compressed beyond the minimum amount of information required by the entropy of the source. Typically used for images, music, and video, these techniques drastically reduce the size of a file without significant loss of quality. See how this works in the MP3, JPEG, and MPEG formats. x
  • 7
    Noise and Channel Capacity
    One of the key issues in information theory is noise: the message received may not convey everything about the message sent. Discover Shannon's second fundamental theorem, which proves that error correction is possible and can be built into a message with only a modest slowdown in transmission rate. x
  • 8
    Error-Correcting Codes
    Dig into different techniques for error correction. Start with a game called word golf, which demonstrates the perils of mistaking one letter for another and how to guard against it. Then graduate to approaches used for correcting errors in computer operating systems, CDs, and data transmissions from the Voyager spacecraft. x
  • 9
    Signals and Bandwidth
    Twelve billion miles from Earth, the Voyager spacecraft is sending back data with just a 20-watt transmitter. Make sense of this amazing feat by delving into the details of the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, signal-to-noise ratio, and bandwidth - concepts that apply to many types of communication. x
  • 10
    Cryptography and Key Entropy
    The science of information is also the science of secrets. Investigate the history of cryptography starting with the simple cipher used by Julius Caesar. See how entropy is a useful measure of the security of an encryption key, and follow the deciphering strategies that cracked early codes. x
  • 11
    Cryptanalysis and Unraveling the Enigma
    Unravel the analysis that broke the super-secure Enigma code system used by the Germans during World War II. Led by British mathematician Alan Turing, the code breakers had to repeat their feat every day throughout the war. Also examine Claude Shannon's revolutionary views on the nature of secrecy. x
  • 12
    Unbreakable Codes and Public Keys
    The one-time pad may be in principle unbreakable, but consider the common mistakes that make this code system vulnerable. Focus on the Venona project that deciphered Soviet intelligence messages encrypted with one-time pads. Close with the mathematics behind public key cryptography, which makes modern transactions secure - for now. x
  • 13
    What Genetic Information Can Do
    Learn how DNA and RNA serve as the digital medium for genetic information. Also see how shared features of different life forms allow us to trace our origins back to an organism known as LUCA - the last universal common ancestor - which lived 3.5 to 4 billion years ago. x
  • 14
    Life's Origins and DNA Computing
    DNA, RNA, and the protein molecules they assemble are so interdependent that it's hard to picture how life got started in the first place. Survey a selection of intriguing theories, including the view that genetic information in living cells results from eons of natural computation. x
  • 15
    Neural Codes in the Brain
    Study the workings of our innermost information system: the brain. Take both top-down and bottom-up approaches, focusing on the world of perception, experience, and external behavior on the one hand versus the intricacies of neuron activity on the other. Then estimate the total information capacity of the brain. x
  • 16
    Entropy and Microstate Information
    Return to the concept of entropy, tracing its origin to thermodynamics, the branch of science dealing with heat. Discover that here the laws of nature and information meet. Understand the influential second law of thermodynamics, and conduct a famous thought experiment called Maxwell's demon. x
  • 17
    Erasure Cost and Reversible Computing
    Maxwell's demon has startling implications for the push toward ever-faster computers. Probe the connection between the second law of thermodynamics and the erasure of information, which turns out to be a practical barrier to computer processing speed. Learn how computer scientists deal with the demon. x
  • 18
    Horse Races and Stock Markets
    One of Claude Shannon's colleagues at Bell Labs was the brilliant scientist and brash Texan John Kelly. Explore Kelly's insight that information is the advantage we have in betting on possible alternatives. Apply his celebrated log-optimal strategy to horse racing and stock trading. x
  • 19
    Turing Machines and Algorithmic Information
    Contrast Shannon's code- and communication-based approach to information with a new, algorithmic way of thinking about the problem in terms of descriptions and computations. See how this idea relates to Alan Turing's theoretical universal computing machine, which underlies the operation of all digital computers. x
  • 20
    Uncomputable Functions and Incompleteness
    Algorithmic information is plagued by a strange impossibility that shakes the very foundations of logic and mathematics. Investigate this drama in four acts, starting with a famous conundrum called the Berry Paradox and including Turing's surprising proof that no single computer program can determine whether other programs will ever halt. x
  • 21
    Qubits and Quantum Information
    Enter the quantum realm to see how this revolutionary branch of physics is transforming the science of information. Begin with the double-slit experiment, which pinpoints the bizarre behavior that makes quantum information so different. Work your way toward a concept that seems positively magical: the quantum computer. x
  • 22
    Quantum Cryptography via Entanglement
    Learn how a feature of the quantum world called entanglement is the key to an unbreakable code. Review the counterintuitive rules of entanglement. Then play a game based on The Newlywed Game that illustrates the monogamy of entanglement. This is the principle underlying quantum cryptography. x
  • 23
    It from Bit: Physics from Information
    Physicist John A. Wheeler's phrase "It from bit" makes a profound point about the connection between reality and information. Follow this idea into a black hole to investigate the status of information in a place of unlimited density. Also explore the information content of the entire universe! x
  • 24
    The Meaning of Information
    Survey the phenomenon of information from pre-history to the projected far future, focusing on the special problem of anti-cryptography - designing an understandable message for future humans or alien civilizations. Close by revisiting Shannon's original definition of information and ask, What does the theory of information leave out?"" x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 354-page printed course guidebook
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What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 354-page printed course guidebook
  • Key Equations in the Science of Information
  • Suggested Reading
  • Questions to Consider

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Your professor

Benjamin Schumacher

About Your Professor

Benjamin Schumacher, Ph.D.
Kenyon College
Dr. Benjamin Schumacher is Professor of Physics at Kenyon College, where he has taught for 20 years. He received his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from The University of Texas at Austin in 1990. Professor Schumacher is the author of numerous scientific papers and two books, including Physics in Spacetime: An Introduction to Special Relativity. As one of the founders of quantum information theory, he introduced the term qubit,...
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Reviews

Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 24 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by An Outstanding Overview (and Terrific Guidebook!) This is an outstanding course, as are all of Professor Schumacher's. If you have any interest in information theory you will love it. The subject is treated with remarkable breadth and depth, considering that there are only 24 lectures. Each is packed full, and many students will benefit from re-viewing some or all of the course and/or reading the Guidebook. The topics range from an introduction to the concept of information, through the history of the theory's development and its extraordinary mathematical elaboration, to applications from genetics to neural processing to horse racing to quantum computing. And yes, as others have pointed out, many lectures treat complex and sophisticated concepts, and many employ equations, often including logarithms. This is wonderful if you understand and have the motivation to keep up with the exposition. But - it is *also* wonderful if you do not! You can simply follow to the limits of your interest and ability, and still appreciate the subject and the course at a qualitative level. (I have studied logarithms in my youth, but honestly am allergic to them. I didn't bother working through the equations on my own. I still gained a tremendous amount of new understanding and insight from the course.) - TGC people - *please* continue to offer science and math courses that are equally deep and challenging! Prof. Schumacher is wonderful as always. He has an extraordinary ability to explain profound scientific concepts to laymen. He is well-organized, he speaks clearly, and his enthusiasm never flags. The visuals are very, very well done. And, I must express my unbounded appreciation for the INCREDIBLY WONDERFUL COURSE GUIDEBOOK!!! - I have been complaining about the declining quality of TGC's guidebooks for years, including the frequent recent lack of glossaries and annotated bibliographies, as well as inadequate figures and illustrations. This course guidebook has everything at a very high quality, including extremely complete and in-depth reviews of the lectures. TGC, *please* continue on this new path! So - my highest recommendation for any with an interest in this area. I have reviewed some courses which I felt would be of benefit to pretty much all of humanity. Certainly this course is not in that category; some significant prior curiosity is needed. But if you are reading this, you probably meet that criterion; do not let the concerns about the math deter you. Enjoy! January 20, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Another excellent course Professor Schumacher is one of the best professors available at The Great Courses. I own 3 other courses taught by him and they are all excellent. I’ve yet to finish one without finding another hole to fill in my scientific education. That’s what you want from a course in my opinion. A challenging topic in Professor Schumacher’s other courses is entropy. I have seen entropy taught in various ways ranging from too simplistic to ridiculous. This course presents the best way I have seen of teaching that topic. It helped me fill in the details I didn’t’ understand from Professor Schumacher’s other courses. A couple of standout lectures for me in this course are Entropy and Microstate Information and Algorithmic Information. I highly recommend this course, but come ready to think! May 27, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by What a bargain! (sale price) I don't come to TGC for confirmation of what I already know. I come here to learn something new. Ben Schumacher's latest course on information is packed to the brim with it! As with his other courses, I find I learn even more the second and third times through than the first. That means I didn't get it all the first time through, but I can say that about any great buffet and that doesn't make it less in value. Quite the contrary! And yet there is nothing here that the typical life long learner can't grasp with a little repetition. And use that guidebook (yes, even if you have the downloadable one). I wear mine ragged (dog eared, highlighted, scribbled notes, etc.), all the things your librarian forbid you to do. I expect to do it all again in 3 months! It gets better every time! May 3, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent I've been waiting for awhile for a Great Courses course on information theory. This seems to be just what I've been waiting for. I'm only a few lectures in and I'm already giving it five stars. I really like Professor Schumacher, I have a couple of his other courses. I like that that there is just enough math to keep me interested and a bit challenged, but not so heavy that I get lost. It will take a couple of viewing, tho, I still have problems with the whole entropy thing. Something I put a lot of value on is the quality of the course guide book. This one is terrific. In fact, it's almost a textbook in and of itself. And a glossary! April 18, 2016
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