26 Nov 2012

Universal message in Gleick’s science book prizewinner

This world’s leading prize for popular science writing has this year been awarded James Gleick for The Information, a book which explores the history, meaning and implications of what humans know.

Information, Gleick argues, isn’t so much something we share and use but underpins our very lives and, quite possibly, the universe itself, writes Channel 4 News Science Editor Tom Clarke.

“We can see now that information is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle,” says Gleick. He then proceeds to tell the long and fascinating history of man’s relationship with information.

According to Gleick, breakthroughs in encoding and storing information occurred countless times through history, from African drumming and the abacus to the printing press and Charles Babbage’s “difference engine”. Each era has had its own information revolution.

The book beat off fierce competition for the prestigious Royal Society Winton Prize for science books. The prize is given annually to the best book on a scientific subject aimed at non-scientists. This year’s shortlist included a tour through the theories of parallel universes, a dispatch from the frontlines of emerging pandemics, and a personal tour of one authour’s genome.

Breadth and readability

But it was the sheer breadth and readability that swung it for The Information. Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, chair of the judging panel, told Channel 4 News: “Take African drums sending messages across the jungle. That’s information – but somehow that hadn’t been put into that class by my brain.”

“He’s got this fantastic swathe of material he brings together, and that was one of the strengths of this book”.

The Information is more than just a history of communication, however. It explores the emerging realities of life in a world that grew from the theoretical descripstion of the “bit” as a the basic unit – the fundamental particle – of information.

As Gleick explains, modern molecular biology has becoming more a study of information – the code of DNA – than anything else. Viewed through the lens of information theory, we ourselves are nothing more than information processors, evolved to receive, interpret, store and then pass on information through a network we call life.

Unifying theory

Moreover, he describes the work of scientists working in the weirdest frontiers of the universe – the quantum world – as being best understood using the language of information, the possibility that a unifying theory of Life, the Universe and Everything may in fact turn out to be a theory of information.

It may sound a stark analysis. Humans care most about meaning, not the information that conveys it. But Gleick’s book is warm, engaging, even generous. Its culmination is in the terrifying world of information overload. In an era of Twitter, computer-driven financial trading and 24-hour news, it’s one many fear we are aleady in.

But Gleick urges optimism. If we keep our eyes and ears open, we can carefully filter and search our way through the current information revolution. We may just keep our heads above the flood.