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Poetic masterpiece of Claude Shannon, father of information theory, published for the first time


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There may be no scientist more obscure relative to his immense accomplishments than Claude Elwood Shannon, who died just over a decade ago, on February 24, 2001, at the age of 84. Shannon was not only the creator of information theory, which provides the mathematical framework that makes digital communications possible (and which I discussed in a recent post). He was also an avid juggler, unicyclist, designer of machines that play chess and other games, and—most surprising of all—a poet.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Shannon’s death, I’m publishing his poem, "A Rubric on Rubik Cubics," which captures Shannon’s legendary playfulness. (Shannon once told me, proudly, that "financial value, or value to the world," never motivated him and that he had "spent lots of time on totally useless problems.") Here is the poem’s provenance: In a letter dated December 1, 1981, Shannon wrote to Dennis Flanagan, then editor of Scientific American, concerning an article that Shannon was supposed to be writing about the physics of juggling.

Dear Dennis:

You probably think I have been fritterin’, I say fitterin’, away my time while my juggling paper is languishing on the shelf. This is only half true. I have come to two conclusions recently:

1) I am a better poet than scientist.

2) Scientific American should have a poetry column.

You may disagree with both of these, but I enclose "A Rubric on Rubik Cubics" for you.

Sincerely,

Claude E. Shannon

P.S. I am still working on the juggling paper.

In 1989 I found Shannon’s poem and letter to Flanagan in an archive at Scientific American when I was researching Shannon for a profile (published in January 1990). When I interviewed Shannon at his home in Winchester, Mass., he said he was disappointed that Scientific American had never published his poem. Better late than never. (Shannon apparently never finished the juggling article.) Below is the poem in its entirety, with Shannon’s footnotes and punctuation. I would be thrilled if readers unpack any references that Shannon doesn’t explain in his footnotes. As Shannon wrote, the poem can be read "or sung to ‘Ta! Ra! Ra! Boom De Ay!’ with an eight-bar chorus." (I prefer singing.)

 

A Rubric on Rubik Cubics (1)

Strange imports come from Hungary:

Count Dracula, and ZsaZsa G.,

Now Erno Rubik’s Magic Cube

For PhD or country rube.

This fiendish clever engineer

Entrapped the music of the sphere.

It’s sphere on sphere in all 3D—

A kinematic symphony!

Ta! Ra! Ra! Boom De Ay!

One thousand bucks a day.

That’s Rubik’s cubic pay.

He drives a Chevrolet. (2)

Forty-three quintillion plus (3)

Problems Rubik posed for us.

Numbers of this awesome kind

Boggle even Sagan’s mind. (4)

Out with sex and violence,

In with calm intelligence.

Kubrick’s "Clockwork Orange"—no!

Rubik’s Magic Cube—Jawohl!

Ta! Ra! Ra! Boom De Ay!

Cu-bies in disarray?

First twist them that-a-way,

Then turn them this-a-way.

Respect your cube and keep it clean.

Lube your cube with Vaseline.

Beware the dreaded cubist’s thumb,

The callused hand and fingers numb. (5)

No borrower nor lender be.

Rude folks might switch two tabs on thee,

The most unkindest switch of all,

Into insolubility. (6)

In-sol-u-bility.

The cruelest place to be. (7)

However you persist

Solutions don’t exist.

Cubemeisters follow Rubik’s camp—

There’s Bühler, Guy and Berlekamp;

John Conway leads a Cambridge pack

(And solves the cube behind his back!). (8)

All hail Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw,

A mayor with fast cubic draw.

Now Dave Singmaster wrote THE BOOK. (9)

One more we must not overlook—

Singmaster’s office-mate!

Programming potentate!

Alg’rithmic heavyweight!

Morwen B. Thistlethwaite!

Rubik’s groupies know their groups:

(That’s math, not rock, you nincompoops.)

Their squares and slices, tri-twist loops,

Plus mono-swaps and supergroups.

Now supergroups have smaller groups

Upon their backs to bite ‘em,

And smaller groups have smaller still,

Almost ad infinitum.

How many moves to solve?

How many sides revolve?

Fifty two for Thistlethwaite.

Even God needs ten and eight. (10)

The issue’s joined in steely grip:

Man’s mind against computer chip.

With theorems wrought by Conway’s eight

‘Gainst programs writ by Thistlethwait.

Can multibillion-neuron brains

Beat multimegabit machines?

The thrust of this theistic schism—

To ferret out God’s algorism!

CODA:

He (hooked on

Cubing)

With great

Enthusiasm:

Ta! Ra! Ra! Boom De Ay!

Men’s schemes gang aft agley.

Let’s cube our life away!

She: Long pause

(having been

here before):

—————OY VAY!

(1) When T. S. Eliot published "The Waste Land" in 1922 with a wealth of footnotes, there was considerable commotion among the critics—should a work of art stand on its own feet or refer to such weighty tomes as The Golden Bough? We are with Eliot and will freely use footnotes to clarify and amplify our meaning. First off, this may be either read as a poem or sung to "Ta! Ra! Ra! Boom De Yay!" with an eight-bar chorus).

(2). A little poetic license here—the Wall Street Journal, Sept. 23, 1981, reports Rubik as receiving $30,000 a month from cubic royalties, but driving a "run-down rattling Polski Fiat." This would neither scan nor rhyme as well as Chevrolet.

(3). There are 8! 12!⁄2 × 3^8/3 × 2^12/2 = 43252 00327 44898 56000 possible arrangements of the cube.

(4) If when Carl Sagan says "billions" he means about three billion, it would takes billions and billions of "billions and billions" for forty-three quintillion plus.

(5) While not as debilitating as weaver’s bottom or hooker’s elbow, cubist’s thumb can be both painful and frustrating. For more on these occupational ailments see recent issues of The New England Journal of Medicine.

(6) A friend of mine, Pete, an expert cubist, told me of encountering a friend Bill at a hobby shop. Bill gave Pete his cube, saying that he had been working for days without success. After a few minutes, Pete turned it into a position where he could see that two tabs had been interchanged.

Pete: Bill, somebody has switched two tabs on your cube.

Bill: That’s impossible. I’ve always carried it, or left it in my apartment, and nobody has keys to get in there.

Pete: Nobody?

Bill: That’s right, nobody. Just me and my girlfriend.

(7) Especially in April.

(8) Actually, he peeks a little.

(9) Singmaster, David. Notes on Rubik’s Magic Cube, Enslow Publishers, Hillside, New Jersey 07205.

(10) In this "mano a mano" of Thistlethwaite and God, Thistlethwaite suffers (and God gains) from the "mixing of quantifiers." What is known is that God’s minimum for some positions is 18 moves, Thistlethwaite’s maximum for any position is 52.

Photo of Shannon in 1952 holding one of his inventions, Theseus, a mechanical, maze-navigating mouse. Credit: Bell Laboratories

Postscript: Andrew Shannon, Claude’s son, informs me by email that his father’s poem was originally published in a slightly amended form in 1985 by David Singmaster in the magazine Cubic Circular. See

http://www.jaapsch.net/puzzles/cubic7.htm
.

 





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  1. 1. kwgmatthies 12:15 pm 03/28/2011

    The late Dr. Barney Oliver, founder and leader of HP Labs, and a one-time mentor for this young engineer, was quite fond of Rubik’s cube. "It’s a simple application of linear algebraic matrix manipulation," he once explained as he quickly organized the multi-colored cube into 6-sides of solid colors. Dr. Oliver, always "Barney" to his staff, was a great boss, a kind man, and a friend and mentor to many. On his desk was a large bronze statue, a gift, featuring a large Rubik Cube of perhaps 2 sq feet to a side, and your article, like every experience where a Rubik Cube catches my attention, reminds me of this great man.

    Bless you Barney, wherever you are, and John, thank you for sharing this insightful look into Claude Shannon, who’s reference to Frazer’s Golden Bough rings with further echoes of Barney, and those few special people I’ve had the privilege to know who’s interests and love of knowledge in life’s many facets were unbound by their chosen profession.

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  2. 2. promytius 12:45 pm 03/28/2011

    footnoted poetry – you’ve trashed his art! not very bright. So if we look in his coffin would we see him rolling over? What if we threw in a cat and some cyanide?
    Don’t ever footnote anyone’s poetry again, ever!
    DOH.

    Link to this
  3. 3. dubina 6:12 pm 03/28/2011

    "We are with Eliot and will freely use footnotes to clarify and amplify our meaning. First off, this may be either read as a poem or sung to "Ta! Ra! Ra! Boom De Yay!" with an eight-bar chorus)."

    Another, more contemporary device for clarifying and amplifying meaning: the literal trailer.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlB6oCQutg8&NR=1

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKrtbUinWOU

    Link to this
  4. 4. dontchaknow 6:15 pm 03/28/2011

    DOH! Those are Shannon’s own footnotes.

    Link to this
  5. 5. voyager 8:36 pm 03/29/2011

    Scientific poem from a non-scientist stimulated by a scientific piece:

    Observation [that's title of the poem; immediately following is the text that gave rise to it]

    “Her birth was difficult, and the surgical instruments that helped bring her into the world also broke her arm and inflicted a deep tear over her left eye. When she was two she suffered her first epileptic seizure…she is stricken as often as several times a day…the neurosurgeon suggests surgery to cut the corpus callosum…Akelaitis asked to examine thirty of the surgeon’s patients, including her…in a 1944 paper Akelaitis noted only a single anomaly…While dressing herself, she `would put her stocking on with her right hand and pull it on with her left and repeat the performance several times.’…Sperry was uncomfortable with Akelaitis’s conclusion that disconnecting the two halves of the brain had no effect on behavior. Sperry’s demonstration of a `disconnect syndrome’ in split-brain cats quickly inspired a similar finding in a human patient…How could such dramatic effects have escaped Akelaitis’s eye?”

    (from “Of One Mind,” Wendy Heller, THE SCIENCES, June 1990)

    I was untimely, mauled and torn,
    Unequal at last in my fight to hide
    From life, not to be born.

    Life has his revenge: to swoop and ride
    My brain and bone, a raptor god
    Till now my only seeker, my only satisfied.

    Till now. The knife has made its promenade
    Through my corpus collosum. There is no hello
    For my quiet observer, my own odd gentle de Sade,

    I’m cleft above now as secretly below.
    My skull, a translucent summer dress
    To his eyes, cups my lobes like breasts, in folio.

    Rules of our Mondays: he comes to my room, comfortless
    A week. I pretend he’s not there. We do not speak
    As I transform myself from subject to sorceress.

    Robed, I powder my face; slack-robed, I sneak
    My hand lower to dust my smoothness. He notes my control
    Over motor function. I hear his chair squeak.

    As I lift one stocking, raise one leg and roll
    The silk down it slowly, precisely, his pencil will stop.
    The delicate work with the garter. Then, fingers stroll

    Absently the shadowed part…I lift my other leg, prop
    It on the first, and do what I have done, and undo what I have done
    One hand still at its secrets. Mirrored knees rise, they drop

    In a room become crystal, room latticed with sun.
    Perfected and perfected again I present–
    He leaves. He will be back. I am his phenomenon.

    Link to this

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