Saturday, April 29, 2006

"1 J/degree K = 10(23) bits"?


Information theorist Tom Stonier was born on this day in 1927 in Hamburg, Germany.

Stonier emigrated to the U.S. in 1939. He first won acclaim as the author of Nuclear Disaster (1964), a report to the New York Academy of Sciences on the potential biological effects of the detonation of a 20-megaton bomb in Manhattan.

An early proponent of the introduction of computers in education, Stonier followed the rise of computers with an eye on their effect upon the biological nature of human beings. In his book Information and the Internal Structure of the Universe (1990), Stonier observed that while science began as a study of the properties of "matter," during the past 200 years it has concerned itself with the properties of "energy," culminating in Albert Einstein's assertion that energy and matter are transducable (by way of the equation E=mc²). Stonier argued that "information" -- representing the changing expressions of all forms of organization on psychological, physical and biological levels -- has been identified by thinkers of the late 20th century as elemental, much like matter and energy, and from this premise he proposed the seemingly preposterous yet compelling notion that information, matter and energy are all transducable from each other.

In an updating of Norbert Wiener's observations, Stonier analyzed the relationship between entropy (energy which becomes unavailable, disintegrating into disorder, as the irreversible process of change occurs within our universe) and information, with the chronological moments in the history of the universe as the sample points on a graph: at the far right, entropy and information are at zero, but as one moves left along the graph, away from the "Big Bang" which begins to differentiate gravity, weak and strong nuclear forces and electromagnetism, matter evolves into more complex forms, with systems (from atoms to molecules to bacteria to humans to civilizations) becoming more complex and ultimately self-organizing, information expands exponentially, even as entropy theoretically increases. As Stonier put it, "One does not start with zero information and have proverbial monkeys typing at random hoping to author Hamlet. Instead, a highly advanced information system named William Shakespeare was born into an advanced information culture, and in due course added further information as the universe cycled on."

His radical conclusion: "The concept that as the universe evolves, its information content increases, is in opposition to the idea that the increase in entropy will inevitably lead to the 'heat death' of the universe" -- as if to say that new ways of processing information, of recreating order within our systems, have seemed to evolve as the universe evolves and produces more information to be processed.

Stonier seemed to be suggesting a transduction of energy into information, something that is knowable at some level by some perceiving system -- an atom, a person, a human nervous system, one's genes. The suggestion of a common denominator for psychological, physical and biological systems somewhere at the confluence of matter, energy and information is an interesting anti-Cartesian metaphor, and may yet have intriguing implications to our collective approach to scientific questions in the future about areas as diverse as neurobiology, energy processing and genetics.

Stonier died on June 28, 1999.

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