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The Logician and the Engineer: How George Boole and Claude Shannon Created the Information Age [Hardcover]

Paul J. Nahin
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Book Description

Oct. 28 2012 0691151008 978-0691151007

Boolean algebra, also called Boolean logic, is at the heart of the electronic circuitry in everything we use--from our computers and cars, to our kitchen gadgets and home appliances. How did a system of mathematics established in the Victorian era become the basis for such incredible technological achievements a century later? In The Logician and the Engineer, best-selling popular math writer Paul Nahin combines engaging problems and a colorful historical narrative to tell the remarkable story of how two men in different eras--mathematician and philosopher George Boole (1815-1864) and electrical engineer and pioneering information theorist Claude Shannon (1916-2001)--advanced Boolean logic and became founding fathers of the electronic communications age.

Presenting the dual biographies of Boole and Shannon, Nahin examines the history of Boole's innovative ideas, and considers how they led to Shannon's groundbreaking work on electrical relay circuits and information theory. Along the way, Nahin presents logic problems for readers to solve and talks about the contributions of such key players as Georg Cantor, Tibor Rado, and Marvin Minsky--as well as the crucial role of Alan Turing's "Turing machine"--in the development of mathematical logic and data transmission. Nahin takes readers from fundamental concepts to a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of how a modern digital machine such as the computer is constructed. Nahin also delves into the newest ideas in quantum mechanics and thermodynamics in order to explore computing's possible limitations in the twenty-first century and beyond.

The Logician and the Engineer shows how a form of mathematical logic and the innovations of two men paved the way for the digital technology of the modern world.


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Review

"Meshing logic problems with the stories of two extraordinary men--Victorian philosopher-mathematician George Boole and twentieth-century information theorist Claude Shannon--Paul Nahin fashions a tale of innovation and discovery. . . . Alongside a gripping account of how Shannon built on Boole's work, Nahin explores others key to the technological revolution, from Georg Cantor to Alan Turing."--Nature

"Part biography, part history, and part a review of basic information theory, the book does an excellent job of fitting these interlocking elements together. Nahin's work is best suited to students and faculty in electrical engineering, mathematics, and information science. It is also recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of information technology."--William Baer, Library Journal

"The reader is taken on a journey from the development of some abstract mathematical ideas through a nearly ubiquitous application of those ideas within the modern world with so many embedded digital computers. . . . I enjoyed the discussion of Claude Shannon. In the history of the computer and development of the internet and World Wide Web, his ideas and contributions are too often overlooked. He is one of my heroes and I believe that everyone that reads this book will come to the same conclusion."--Charles Ashbacher, MAA Reviews

"Paul J. Nahin really knows how to tell a good story. The Logician and the Engineer in part is the biography of two very important persons in computer history, George Boole and Claude Shannon, but there's more; this book encompasses a wide range of computer history and computer design, and there are logic puzzles and brainteasers throughout. George Boole, a pure mathematician, and Claude Shannon, a practical electrical engineer, never met as they were born a hundred years apart. . . . The Logician and the Engineer will be enjoyed by budding computer scientists, engineers and more experienced readers. The Logician and the Engineer is truly a gem."--Robert Schaefer, New York Journal of Books

"A short but fairly detailed exploration of the genesis of Boolean logic and Shannon's information theory. . . . [G]ood background reading for anyone studying electronics or computer science."--Christine Evans-Pughe, Engineering & Technology

"Although the book is technical, it is always easily understandable for anyone (for those who need it, some basic rules for electrical circuits are collected in a short appendix). It is not only understandable but also pleasantly bantering and at occasions even facetious."--A. Bultheel, European Mathematical Society

"Most valuable to this reviewer, and likely to many potential readers, is the closing chapter, aptly titled Beyond Boole and Shannon. Here is provided an introduction to quantum computing and its logic, possibly portending the future of computers, yet unmistakably bearing the footprints of the two early pioneers. It is an unexpected yet fitting conclusion to this thoroughly enjoyable read."--Ronald E. Prather, Mathematical Reviews Clippings

"Nahin has had the very good idea of connecting the very different worlds and times of Boole, Shannon, and others to demonstrate that a little Victorian algebra can turn out to be very useful. Readers will also learn about Turing machines, quantum computing, and other more futuristic topics."--Robert E. O'Malley, Jr., SIAM Review

"The exposition is clear and does not assume any prior knowledge except elementary mathematics and a few basic facts from physics. I recommend this well-written book to all readers interested in the history of computer science, as well as those who are curious about the fundamental principles of digital computing."--Antonín Slavík, Zentralblatt MATH

"[T]his is a useful and often interesting introduction to the life and work of two intellectual giants who are largely unknown to the general public."--Gareth and Mary Jones, London Mathematical Society Newsletter

"The problems are varied and indeed intriguing, and the solutions are delightful."--Mathematics Magazine

From the Inside Flap

"In this book, Nahin brings to life the immense practical outcomes of deep theoretical ideas. Too often, technological advances are seen as isolated inventions and the underlying mathematical and scientific infrastructure goes unappreciated. By following the story of George Boole and Claude Shannon with a lively historical style, and a futuristic extension to quantum computing, Nahin makes the connection of theory and practice into something vivid and compelling."--Andrew Hodges, author of Alan Turing: The Enigma

"From electromechanical relays to quantum computing, Nahin takes us on a delightful exploration of Boolean logic and the careers of George Boole and Claude Shannon. This is a superb book for anyone who wants to understand how that gigahertz chip in their favorite electronic doohickey really works."--Lawrence Weinstein, author of Guesstimation 2.0: Solving Today's Problems on the Back of a Napkin

"Written with the skill and ability that we have come to expect from Paul Nahin, The Logician and the Engineer is an interesting and informative account of the history of formal logic, the lives of its two great investigators, and the applications of Boolean algebra in electronic computation."--Chuck Adler, St. Mary's College


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Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Caution: NOT a biography or history Oct. 18 2012
By David Wineberg TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Despite the title, the detailed description of this book on its cover and in accompanying material by its publisher, it is NOT a biography. It only gives the appearance of being biographical. The title subjects only make their (brief) appearance in chapter three. Then it's on to the real business - math. I was expecting a very cool, parallel story of how the 19th century Boole foreshadowed the brilliant 20th century Shannon, how there were parallels in their lives, how coincidences piled up, how hints from one resulted in achievements in the other - how Shannon cashed in on what Boole couldn't even imagine from his own work. How Shannon redeemed Boole.

There's none of it.

This is a book on electrical circuit design, by a professor of electrical engineering and mathematics. It is a textbook for the enthusiastic student entering the field. Nahin is clearly far more at ease in formulas than in narrative. The ubiquitous exclamation points and overuse of italics are vivid testament to that. The biography reader will be lost after the first formula is built. This book is about the math, not the people.

But as such, there is nothing wrong with this book. It is clear, organized, inviting, and easy to digest if you are interested in the subject matter. But let's be clear - the subject matter is circuit design, not Boole and Shannon. After chapter three, Boole barely gets mentioned at all, while Shannon pops up here and there because of a relevant paper (and the occasional joke). But these appearances are as scientific references, not biographical events or descriptions.

Ironically, Nahin ends the book with the story of The Language Clarifier, a black box used to interpret legalese so that mere mortals could comprehend what the fatheads (his term) had written. If only the publishers had been required to use it, this book might not be so misleading.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.2 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
74 of 79 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Caution: NOT a biography or history Oct. 18 2012
By David Wineberg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Despite the title, the detailed description of this book on its cover and in accompanying material by its publisher, it is NOT a biography. It only gives the appearance of being biographical. The title subjects only make their (brief) appearance in chapter three. Then it's on to the real business - math. I was expecting a very cool, parallel story of how the 19th century Boole foreshadowed the brilliant 20th century Shannon, how there were parallels in their lives, how coincidences piled up, how hints from one resulted in achievements in the other - how Shannon cashed in on what Boole couldn't even imagine from his own work. How Shannon redeemed Boole.

There's none of it.

This is a book on electrical circuit design, by a professor of electrical engineering and mathematics. It is a textbook for the enthusiastic student entering the field. Nahin is clearly far more at ease in formulas than in narrative. The ubiquitous exclamation points and overuse of italics are vivid testament to that. The biography reader will be lost after the first formula is built. This book is about the math, not the people.

But as such, there is nothing wrong with this book. It is clear, organized, inviting, and easy to digest if you are interested in the subject matter. But let's be clear - the subject matter is circuit design, not Boole and Shannon. After chapter three, Boole barely gets mentioned at all, while Shannon pops up here and there because of a relevant paper (and the occasional joke). But these appearances are as scientific references, not biographical events or descriptions.

Ironically, Nahin ends the book with the story of The Language Clarifier, a black box used to interpret legalese so that mere mortals could comprehend what the fatheads (his term) had written. If only the publishers had been required to use it, this book might not be so misleading.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Much about digital circuit design, some about Boole's theories, almost nothing about Shannon's channel capacity basis Dec 7 2012
By Crowbar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I wanted to learn more about how Shannon conceived his Channel Capacity concept and equation. Nahin may understand this, but he certainly didn't explain it in his book. I also wanted to learn something about the relative contributions that Shannon and Nyquist made to the argument that analog data can be perfectly represented by digital samples. I was disappointed here, as well. Nahin is probably an excellent teacher of digital circuit design. He covers Boole's not-so-well-known contributions to math pretty well. But, don't buy this book if you mainly want to understand the deep significance of Shannon's early work.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Needs someone to actually proofread it! Feb. 25 2013
By mc - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I found this book interesting and easy to read. It is written in a sort of drive by, essay style. There are many noteworthy (but sort of random) facts I did not know in this book. I checked it out of my local library, and I enjoyed reading it, but I was not looking for anything other than entertainment (infotainment?). I would not own it, however, because it warrants only one reading. It does not present anything in enough detail to justify buying it. It does not really live up to its title, either, but is more of a smattering of tidbits, facts, and reminiscences than a focused treatise on the 'creation of the information age' as it purports to be. Never mind that it is not a biography by any stretch. Still, I think the book would be fun (if you hang out with mathematicians, engineers, or programmers) as a conversation starter, or a list of topics to discuss. It is definitely entertaining, but probably not so much to non-techies.

Should you trust a book about logic when itself contains muddled reasoning? I found one section of this book where the author apparently did not read what he wrote. In section 8.1 p 139 ff the author is explaining 'states' with the classic example problem of the two adults and two children on one side of a river, with a boat that holds only one adult or two children, the problem being how to get everyone over to the other side when anyone can row. Fair enough, he shows 10 'states' where everyone ends up safely on the other side of the river. But then, writing that sometimes we want the two children to be left on the original side of the river with the boat, and not to end up across the river, because they are running a 'transportation service,' he makes the embarrassing error of writing that we now need an additional eleventh 'state' to get the children back to the original side leaving the two adults across the river. But the children were already on the original side of the river with the boat at 'state' number 9, and the two adults were safely across the river! This is clearly not simply a typo. The author leaves no doubt that he was not paying attention to his own writing when he directs us to note that the same 'state' never occurs twice. But 'state' 9 is exactly the same as the 11th 'state' he says we now need!

It is clear this book was scarcely edited or proofread and (probably) written in a hurry.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing book by an extraordinary author Feb. 5 2013
By Mohammed A. Alkadhi - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Whenever I see a title of a book authored by P. Nahin, I am looking eagerly to by it and I won't be disappointed. This book is no exception and actually from its title, as a mathematician, I was more confidence that this book is more interesting for me. Nahin shows in this book how a pure logic thoughts of the 19th English logician George Boole are the backbone of the spine of the incredible technology advances of present world. Nahin's admirable style is lucid, informative, and charming. No doubts the book deserve the highest rate, the five stars and more ..
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A good concept, not followed through. Dec 26 2012
By F. M. Brown - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Paul Nahin's book, "The Logician and the Engineer," is deficient
in several ways.

Its first deficiency is that Nahin has relatively little to say
about the putative subjects of his book, filling in with a
congeries of topics of interest to himself. In spite of the
book's sub-title -- "How George Boole and Claude Shannon Created
the Information Age" -- Boole and Shannon are minor actors in
this book. Of its more than 220 pages, one 24-page chapter
provides brief biographies of Boole and Shannon, and another
chapter of the same length discusses Boolean algebra. The bulk of
the book, however, is given over to digital circuit-design,
probability, Turing machines, logic puzzles, and speculations
about future computers.

The reader gets a warning of strange things to come in Chapter 1,
entitled "What You Need to Know to Read This Book." The chapter
focuses heavily, and weirdly, on potentiometers, ending with a
demonstration of the parabolic shape of the resistance-function
of two ganged potentiometers. Oddly for an electrical engineer,
Nahin states that the term "rheostat" is "a rather old-fashioned
word" for a potentiometer. Potentiometers and rheostats are
actually quite different devices. Although both are three-
terminal variable resistors, a potentiometer is a voltage-divider
that uses all three terminals, whereas a rheostat uses two
terminals (the slider and one other terminal) to control current
by connecting a variable resistance in series with the load.

A second deficiency of this book is its pervasive carelessness.
An example is the section-title, "The Mathematician," that begins
the chapter on Boole and Shannon -- even though Boole is called
"The Logician" in the book's title. This carelessness is also
exhibited by misspellings such as "Pierce," "Goldstein," and
"Baggage." These are readily interpreted by readers interested in
computers and logic. More likely to cause confusion is his
reference to "the 1940 Alfred Nobel Prize" awarded to Shannon.
This prize is named after Alfred Noble, not the famous Swede.

The rest of my comments concern a final deficiency of this book:
its shaky grasp of Boolean algebra and the work of Boole and
Shannon.

Nahin's chapter on Boolean algebra is particularly muddled. In
the section, "Boole's Algebra of Sets," he announces that Boole
"used our inclusive-or + symbol for his exclusive-or." Boole's +
is not, however, exclusive-or. Boole invented two algebras in his
"Laws of Thought." In the first, the sum x+x has no meaning; the
addends must be disjoint. In the second algebra, x+x=2x. In the
section of this chapter entitled "Propositional Calculus," Nahin
defines a proposition, discusses some propositional operations,
and then announces that he's really been talking about Boolean
algebra: "There is nothing more to Boolean algebra than what I've
already told you." Later in this section he asserts, "Boolean
variables can have just one of two values (0 or 1). So, to
confirm an identity, all we have to do is examine, one by one,
all the possible combinations of variable values (a finite
number)." Unlike propositions, however, Boolean variables can
have values other than 0 or 1. Some examples are a subset of a
set, a divisor of 30, and a'+b. It is indeed true that one need
only consider the values 0 and 1 to verify an identity (this
property is confirmed by the Lowenheim-Muller Verification
Theorem), but not because a Boolean algebra is necessarily two-
valued.

Nahin is enthusiastic about Shannon's "famous epiphany of
marrying Boolean algebra with electrical switching circuits" in
his 1938 paper, "A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching
Circuits" -- but seems not to have read the paper. Rather than
Boolean algebra, Shannon's analysis is based on propositional
logic. (Shannon mentions Boole as an historical figure, but does
not cite Boole, or any work on Boolean algebra, in his
references.) In a further misunderstanding of the paper, Nahin
reverses Shannon's association of series and parallel connections
with logical "or" and logical "and," respectively.

Anyone buying this book to learn "How George Boole and Claude
Shannon Created the Information Age" will be disappointed.
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