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New-Course Description

The Intellectual History of Information: 1680-2001
A Story of Philosophy, Mathematics, Physics
and Computer Science

Residential College, First-Year Seminar
Science, Technology and Society Program
Winter Semester, 2001

Instructor: Thomas W.O'Donnell, Ph.D.
Visiting Professor of Physics, LS&A
The University of Michigan


DESCRIPTION: This new course in ``The Intellectual History of Information: 1680-2001,'' will introduce students to the ideas that gave birth to the science of ``information theory'' in the mid-20thCentury, and which are the necessary basis for today's `Information Revolution.' We will proceed chronologically, using biographical accounts to explore a meandering story of discovery that includes the lives and work of Leibnitz, Boole, Cantor, Frege, Hilbert, Maxwell, Boltzman, Russell, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Einstein, Gödel, Church, Turing, von Neumann, Shannon, and Feynman--and perhaps some contemporary researchers.

We will see how these intellectuals led lives intimately connected to the great events of their time, and how their struggles for acceptance of their ideas sometimes went well, but often went badly and even tragically, due to prevailing prejudice and intolerance or other impediments.

This is not per se a philosophy, math, physics, nor a computer science course, yet we will become familiar with important ideas from these fields. Some of the important discoveries and ideas students will be able to describe by the end of the course include symbolic and Boolean logic, infinite sets, undecideability, Gödel numbers, algorithms, Turing machines and universal computation, the role of software, the halting problem, P vs. NP-complete problems, information entropy, as well as some related ideas from physics such as quantum computing, entropy, ergodicity and Maxwell's demon.

The aim is to learn about these revolutionary ideas in a popular, intuitive way that gives students the general flavor and feel of the discoveries. By learning something about the history and content of these ideas, we'll come to see how and why these ideas are rapidly transforming society and affecting the lives of all people.

REQUIREMENTS: No previous knowledge of these ideas whatsoever is assumed, but inquisitiveness and patience for understanding new ideas in a stepwise manner are required. The seminar-style course will emphasize critical reading and discussion with regular, but short (two-three page) writing assignments. Students will learn to use traditional and electronic library resources, the class web pages, and to submit assignments electronically. A course pack will be available with numerous short, science-magazine-type articles (e.g., from New Scientist), in addition to readings from several books (mostly very recently published), which examine this history.

My initial bibliography for course development (not assignments) was:


1. ``The Universal Computer: The Road from Leibniz to Turing'', Martin Davis, Norton, New York, 2001

2. ``The Advent of the Algorithm: The 300-Year Journey from an Idea to the Computer'', David Berlinski, Horcourt, San Diego, 2000.

3. ``Before the Computer''

4. ``The Bit and the Pendulum''

5. ``The Cambridge Quintet''

6. ``The End of Certainty''

7. ``The Evolution of Wired Life''

8. ``The Feynman Lectures on Computation''

9.``The History of Computing''

10.``The New Renaissance''

11.``When Information Came of Age''

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Thomas W ODonnell