Claude Shannon, when the father of information estimated the information in our DNA

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Claude Shannon, when the father of information estimated the information in our DNA
Claude Shannon, when the father of information estimated the information in our DNA

Since childhood, Claude Elwood Shannon (1916 – 2001) was a restless soul who enjoyed building model airplanes and amateur radio sets.

However, it was after studying electrical engineering and mathematics at the University of Michigan that Claude published a paper for Scientific American as a graduate student at MIT that would become one of the most influential writings of all time.

Its title was “Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits“.

Thanks to this work, Claude is recognized as having founded the field of information theory. He is perhaps equally known for laying the foundation of digital computer and digital circuit design theory in the year 1937. He also contributed extensively to the field of cryptanalysis for the defense of the United States during World War II, with advanced work on code breaking and telecommunications security.

Minivac 601, electromechanical digital computer by Claude Shannon
Minivac 601, electromechanical digital computer by Claude Shannon

Claude Shannon and the DNA bit storage capacity

In 1948, Bell Laboratories announced the creation of the bit, a unit for measuring information. Its inventor was 32 years old and his name was Claude Shannon. Thanks to Shannon, the bit (an acronym meaning “binary digit”) is the smallest possible unit of information in digital computing.

China will be the third nation to bring moon samples to Earth after the United States and Russia
China will be the third nation to bring moon samples to Earth after the United States and Russia

One summer day in 1949, before the volume entitled “A mathematical theory of communication” appeared, Claude took a pencil and a piece of paper from a notebook, drew a vertical line and wrote down all the powers of ten. He called that axis “bit storage capacity”.

So he placed a digital wheel, like that of a desktop calculator with ten decimal digits, thus representing a little more than 3 bits.

Claude Shannon in a black suit. One of the great geniuses of the modern era
Claude Shannon in a black suit. One of the great geniuses of the modern era

This is how Shannon postulated “the genetic constitution of man”, totalling 10 to the fifth power of bits of information. It was an unusual idea for the time because the discovery of the structure of DNA was still many years away. However, Claude suggested, for the first time, that the human genome was an information storage system measurable in bits.

However, Claude’s guess would fall short by at least four orders of magnitude, as James Gleick explains in his book “The Information“.

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