Claude Shannon: how genius solves problems

Original author: Zat Rana
  • Transfer

Claude Shannon took about ten years to fully formulate his epoch-making information theory.

First, in graduate school, he was nurturing the idea of ​​bringing a common base under the set of information technologies of his time (such as telephone, radio, television).

However, it was not until 1948 that he published the Mathematical Theory of Communication .

True, this was not his only major contribution to science. While still a student at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), at his modest 21, he published a work that many consider perhaps the most important master's thesis of the century.

For an ordinary person, its value is small. It is impossible to say that the name Shannon is on everyone’s lips. But, if it were not for the work of Shannon, then no computer in the modern sense could not appear. Shannon had a tremendous impact not only on computer science, but also on physics and engineering.

We easily throw the word "genius", but only a few people in the world rightly deserve to be called so, and Claude Shannon is one of them. He thought differently, thoughtfully playfully.

One of the unobtrusive foundations of his genius, manifested in this way, was his approach to solving problems. He did not simply formulate a question, and then sought an answer to it, but methodologically developed a process that helped to consider the essence behind the obvious.

His tasks differed from most of those with whom we probably had to deal with, but his templates and reasoning principles were somewhat amenable to generalization and, having mastered such a generalization, we ourselves can learn to think more shrewdly.

Any task has shape and form. To solve problems the first thing you need to learn to understand them.

Transferred to Alconost

We formulate the essence, then we complete the details

It is clear to any of us how important it is to receive answers, but many people really neglect how important it is to formulate a question in such a way that we really get the answer.

We quickly jump from nuance to nuance, hoping that sooner or later they will be put together, and not throwing all our strength on the development of intuition in the discipline we are engaged in.

It was here that Shannon acted exactly the opposite. In fact, as noted by his biographers in the book A Mind at Play , he was so keen on this that some contemporary mathematicians thought that he was not sufficiently meticulous about building a coherent picture. Naturally, they were interested in details.

However, according to Shannon, you can see the essence of the problem being investigated and, accordingly, the path to the answer, only after you cut off insignificant details from it.

In fact, often, going to this point, the problem may no longer be felt - and this suggests how important it is to make a general impression before moving on to the details. Otherwise, you can go the wrong way.

Details are important and useful. In fact, many details are incomparably more important and more useful than they appear at first glance. However, no less and useless parts.

If you do not find the essence of the problem, then you start at all with the wrong parts, because of which more and more new incorrect details are added, and so on until you get bogged down.

Starting to cut off the irrelevant, you discipline yourself, and learn to see the essence behind the haze of the irrelevant. That's when you find the foundations you were looking for.

Finding the true shape of the problem is almost as important as the subsequent answer.


In a report read to Bell Labs in 1952 before his contemporaries, Shannon dwelt on how he trains his own mind, developing a creative approach to his long-term tasks.

He not only simplified them, searching for the essence, but also offered something else - at first glance, it would seem insignificant, but critically important for non-standard thinking.

Often, long thinking about the problem, we begin to think with limited and strictly adhere to a single trajectory. Logical reasoning starts from a certain point, then reasonable conclusions are made and, if the reasoning is correct, logic always leads us to the same answer.

Creative thinking is a little different. Interrelations are also captured here, however, such judgments are not so much logical as intuitive, allowing us to develop new patterns of thinking.

One of Shannon's favorite tricks was to rebuild the task and compare it to the most varied parameters. Thus, he could exaggerate it, diminish it, formulate in other words, change the angle of consideration and invert.

The essence of such an exercise is simply to achieve a more holistic view of what is happening.

Our brain is easily fixated on one or another thoughts, and the best way to break out of such a loop is to change the reference system. We do not change the intuitive understanding of the problem and do not reject the revealed essence, we change only the presentation of the material.

For example, you can ask: how best to solve it? But the following question is also possible: what is the worst solution? In answering both of these questions - knowledge, and we must analyze both options.

The problem may have not only a different shape, but also a multitude of outlines. Different outlines encompass different truths.

Multiply the essence of all input data.

While it is important to pay attention to the quality of ideas, it is no less important, perhaps, to think about quantity. We are concerned not only with the final figures, but also with how we arrive at these figures.

A good idea is needed to solve a problem. In turn, a good idea is usually found only after discarding a lot of bad ones. Anyway, to give everything that comes to mind is not an option. It's not just that.

During the Second World War, Shannon met Alan Turing, another pioneer of computer science. While Turing was in the USA, they met almost every day. For many years they did not lose contact, both respected each other’s ideas and enjoyed each other’s company.

Shannon, arguing about what he thought constituted the essence of genius, used the analogy suggested by Turing, and based on it derived one subtle observation. According to Shannon himself:
There are people who will throw an idea into your head — and you will get half the new idea at the exit. Some are capable of more: they give out two new ideas for each one received.

Out of modesty, he refused to rank himself in the second category, referring to her, for example, Newton. However, if you look at the situation, it is clear that we have in the game. It's not just about quantity.

Any basic data basically carries a truth that is not noticeable on the surface. Truth is the basis for a variety of different solutions to a multitude of different tasks.

I guess Shannon guessed that generating good ideas requires multiplying the essence of each data. Bad ideas can appear if you misunderstand the point, but the better you outline it, the more fruitful your search for insights will be.

Doubling the returns from your ideas is the first step, but it is really important to capture their essence.

All you need to know

A significant part of life - whether in work, in relationships with people, in taking care of oneself - comes down to identifying the problem and the ability to approach it so that it then passes.

Perhaps Claude Shannon was a lone genius, had a unique mind, but his method is quite accessible to any of us. His strength was precisely in this method and the ability to apply it.

The ability to solve problems well is the fruit of both critical and creative thinking. The best way to combine them is to arm themselves with a method that will make the most beneficial use of both.

Patterns of thinking shape our mind. The goal is to develop the right patterns for this.

About the translator

. The article is translated in Alconost.

Alconost engaged in the localization of games ,applications and sites in 70 languages. Language translators, linguistic testing, cloud platform with API, continuous localization, 24/7 project managers, any string resource formats.

We also make advertising and training videos - for sites selling, image, advertising, training, teasers, expliners, trailers for Google Play and the App Store.

Read more

Also popular now: