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Switching Off

The accolades for Shannon’s work were quick in coming. Warren Weaver, director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Natural Sciences Division, declared that information theory encompassed “all of the procedures by which one mind may affect another,” including “not only written and oral speech, but also music, the pictorial arts, the theatre, the ballet, and in fact all human behavior.” Fortune magazine could barely contain its enthusiasm, dubbing information theory one of man’s “proudest and rarest creations, a great scientific theory which could profoundly and rapidly alter man’s view of the world.” Shannon himself soon had to set aside an entire room in his home just to hold all his citations, plaques and testimonials.

Within a year or two of his paper’s publication, however, Shannon was horrified to find that information theory was becoming-well, popular. People were saying ridiculous things about the amount of information coming out of the sun, or even the information content of noise. Scientists were submitting grant applications that referred to “information theory” whether their proposals had anything to do with it or not. “Information theory” was becoming a buzzword, much as “artificial intelligence,” “chaos” and “complexity” would in the 1980s and 1990s. And Shannon hated it. In a 1956 paper entitled “The Bandwagon,” in the journal Transactions on Information Theory, he declared that information theory was being greatly oversold. “It has perhaps ballooned to an importance beyond its actual accomplishments,” he wrote.

Rather than continue to fight what he knew was a losing battle, Shannon dropped out. Although he continued, for a time, his research on information theory, he turned down almost all the endless invitations to lecture, or to give newspaper interviews; he didn’t want to be a celebrity. He likewise quit responding to much of his mail. Correspondence from major figures in science and government ended up forgotten and unanswered in a file folder he labeled “Letters I’ve procrastinated too long on.” As the years went by, in fact, Shannon started to withdraw not just from the public eye but from the research community-an attitude that worried his colleagues at MIT, who had hired him away from Bell Labs in 1958. “He wrote beautiful papers-when he wrote,” says MIT’s Fano. “And he gave beautiful talks-when he gave a talk. But he hated to do it.”

From time to time, Shannon did continue to publish. A notable example, before he became too horrified by his celebrity and withdrew more completely, was a seminal 1950 article for Scientific American describing how a computer might be programmed to play chess. But he slowly faded from the academic scene, recalls Peter Elias, another leader of the MIT information theory group. “Claude’s vision of teaching was to give a series of talks on research that no one else knew about. But that pace was very demanding; in effect, he was coming up with a research paper every week.” By the mid-1960s, Elias recalls, Shannon had stopped teaching.

After his official retirement in 1978, at age 62, Shannon happily withdrew to his home in the Boston suburb of Winchester, MA. Money was not a concern; thanks to his knowledge of the high-tech industries springing up around Boston’s Route 128, he had made some canny investments in the stock market. Nor did there seem to be any diminution of his ingenuity. “He still built things!” remembers Betty Shannon with a laugh. “One was a…figure of W. C. Fields that bounced three balls on a drumhead. It made a heck of a noise, let me tell you!”
Nonetheless, there came a time around 1985 when he and Betty began to notice certain lapses. He would go for a drive and forget how to get home. By 1992, when the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers was preparing to publish his collected papers, Shannon was disturbed to realize that he couldn’t remember writing many of them. And by mid-1993, with his condition becoming apparent to everyone, the family confirmed what many had begun to suspect: Claude Shannon had Alzheimer’s disease. Later that year his family reluctantly placed him in a nursing home.

In 1998, when his hometown of Gaylord, MI, commemorated the 50th anniversary of information theory by unveiling a bust of its creator in a city park, Betty Shannon thanked the town in his stead. Physically, she says, he was fine almost until the end, when everything seemed to collapse at once. But on February 24, just two months shy of Shannon’s 85th birthday, the end did come. “The response to his death has been overwhelming,” she says. “I think it would have astounded him.”

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