The University Record, February 1, 1999

Ulaby introduces 'Michigan Greats'

Editor's Note: This article is the first in a series of profiles of U-M alumni who have made significant and lasting contributions through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Each month, Interim Vice President for Research Fawwaz Ulaby will make a short presentation on a "Michigan Great" for the Regents, which will be followed by an article in The University Record. An expanded version of this and future articles, including extensive references, are available on the research Web site at

Communication theory pioneer started at the U

By Lee Katterman
Office of the Vice President for Research

Claude Shannon, a U-M graduate and founder of information theory, grew up in Gaylord. His interest in technology was evident early on‹he built a telegraph system from his house to a friend¹s house a half-mile away, sending the signal through the barbed wire fence that ran along a nearby pasture. Photo courtesy Office of the Vice President for Research

It's been said that this U-M alumnus has long deserved a Nobel Prize for his work. But Claude Shannon, who graduated in 1936, has not been so honored because his research contributions in the field of "information theory" do not fit neatly into any of the six Nobel categories. What makes the oversight more glaring is the important foundation Shannon built for the computerized society we live in today.

In A Mathematical Theory of Communication, published in 1948, Shannon laid out a simple, precise, mathematical description for communication that played a key role in the development of the telephone system, the Internet and even the CD player used to play recorded music. Shannon's model of the communication process and how information can be measured and transmitted efficiently and accurately remains important today, even as the technology becomes more sophisticated. "Few other works of this century have had a greater impact on science and engineering," said University of Southern California professor Irving Reed in describing Shannon's contributions at a recent forum on information theory.

An essential characteristic of Shannon's work is his application of Boolean algebra, the subject of his senior thesis here, to electrical engineering. Shannon saw great similarities between electric circuits and the true/false or yes/no statements common in algebra developed in the 19th century by George Boole. Shannon proposed building circuits using voltage changes to "answer" yes/no binary questions on the way to doing calculations. And it was Shannon who brought into common usage the word "bit" (standing for binary digit) as the fundamental unit of information content in communication of all kinds.

Shannon's ideas have been influential in areas beyond engineering--probability and statistics, cryptography and even models of investment studied by economists.

"His work also had a huge impact in the study of human communication," says Gary Olson, professor of psychology and interim dean of the School of Information. In fields such as linguistics and psychology, scholars were intrigued by Shannon's work and the possibility to quantify information. Over time, it became clear that such measurements were insufficient for the study of language. But, Olson notes, "Such a powerful idea [as Shannon's] made clear what we didn't understand" and helped open up new lines of inquiry.

Shannon's legacy remains in evidence in many places at the U-M today.

David Neuhoff, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, has research and teaching interests in communications, information theory and signal processing, especially data compression, image and video coding and Shannon theory. Neuhoff spent sabbaticals in 1989-90 and 1997 conducting research at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J.--where Shannon worked as a research scientist from 1941 to 1972, while also serving on the faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1956­78.

Shannon would have been fascinated by the development of Internet2 and the many uses for this high-capacity, high-speed computer network. When Shannon was doing most of his work, the concept of a network did not exist. Everything was point-to-point.

Douglas Van Houweling, former vice provost for information technology, now heads the organization that is creating Internet2. U-M faculty and staff also are conducting pilot projects that utilize the "big pipe" for data that Internet2 provides. For example, scientists at the Electron Microbeam Analysis Lab and others on campus are developing a method to use Internet2 to remotely operate a scanning electron microscope and view the images produced as they are produced. In another project, faculty and students in art are exploring the qualitative aspects of human interaction via the fast video and audio Internet2 can provide. An Internet-in-the-Sky project is another piece of the communication revolution that Shannon fostered, and one with a U-M connection.

Amer Hassan, a 1988 Ph.D. graduate of the College of Engineering, works for Teledesic, the company developing a computer network that will use 288 low-orbit satellites to link users around the globe with a speed and quality of service that will rival ground-based Internet2.

While no one could have imagined how much progress scientists and engineers would make in applying and extending the ideas Shannon published 50 years ago, those who have studied his work now know the tremendous contributions he made. In the past year, several major symposia have been held to honor Shannon, from Bell Labs and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Athens and Amsterdam. And, fittingly, discussions are in progress at the

U-M to establish a lasting tribute to this remarkable alumnus.